In today’s economy, postsecondary credentials are increasingly important to labor market success. Community colleges provide a key pathway to these credentials for many, including low-income and nontraditional students. Unfortunately, many community college students leave before earning a degree or credential, especially those who enter underprepared for college-level work.
As part of MDRC’s multisite Opening Doors demonstration, Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York — a large, urban college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system — tested a one-semester learning community program. The program placed freshmen into groups of up to 25 students who took three classes together during their first semester: a developmental or college-level English course, an academic course required for the student’s major, and a freshman orientation course. It also provided enhanced counseling and tutoring as well as textbook vouchers.
MDRC is using a random assignment research design to study the effects of the Opening Doors Learning Communities program, compared with Kingsborough’s standard services and courses. An earlier MDRC report followed the students in this study for two years and found that the program improved students’ college experience and some short-term educational outcomes. This report extends the follow-up through six years after students entered the program and examines whether the program led to long-term academic success. Key findings include:
- The Opening Doors Learning Communities program increased the proportion of students who earned a degree by 4.6 percentage points after six years.
- The Opening Doors Learning Communities program is cost-effective. In particular, the cost per degree earned was lower per program group member than it was per control group member.
This report provides evidence that learning communities with enhanced supports can affect community college students’ short- and long-term academic success. These improvements are particularly noteworthy, given the short duration and cost-effectiveness of the program. This analysis, however, may not be representative of the effects of learning communities more generally. Another MDRC report on findings from the Learning Communities Demonstration, released by the National Center for Postsecondary Research, looked at three semesters of follow-up at six learning community programs targeted to developmental education students and generally found only modest short-term results.
Several factors, however, distinguish the Opening Doors Learning Communities at Kingsborough. Most notably, they were particularly comprehensive. They linked three courses and provided enhanced services; some of the services extended into the trailing summer or winter intersession. In addition, the research sample had important distinguishing characteristics. The program explicitly recruited students intending to enroll in college full time and included both developmental and college-ready English students. The Opening Doors program also had unusually strong support from the college leadership. Therefore, while the Kingsborough results are encouraging, it is not clear that its positive impacts can be readily replicated at other institutions.