Community colleges are a gateway to postsecondary degrees for many students, including those from low-income backgrounds and marginalized populations. Yet once students enter community college, they are faced with a host of complex administrative processes that can make it difficult to succeed. The pandemic exacerbated these and other barriers, as students were deciding whether they would continue to enroll full time, or enroll at all in college, and colleges were digesting new policies, implementing virtual classes, and determining the availability of new federal and state funding.
To address these challenges, 11 community colleges in New Jersey and two Historically Black Community Colleges (one in Alabama and one in Mississippi) joined the OnPath project. The goal was to help community college students stay enrolled during the pandemic. OnPath developed student outreach campaigns to encourage student enrollment and persistence, trained college staff members about student-centered design principles for policies and procedures, and generated ideas to advance systems change at colleges. OnPath researchers collaborated with college staff members who interact directly with students—advisors, financial aid officers, registrars’ assistants, and student services staff, who are all essential to running a college. These individuals have key insights about how to address issues related to academic success, but their insights are often lost. As the first point of contact for many students and the administrators of systems such as the financial aid office, the registrar’s office, and the admissions office, these staff members often know exactly when, where, and why students confront barriers to success, and they often come up with powerful strategies and workarounds to overcome those barriers. Yet these insights and innovations rarely result in changes to the college system or process, which means colleges are not taking full advantage of a source of deep expertise.
OnPath facilitated a powerful combination of people and knowledge by bringing together college staff members with operational knowledge about what needs to change, evidence from rigorous MDRC research about what helps students persist in college, and facilitators from MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science. Through a series of workshops, one-on-one coaching sessions, and evidence-based templates of messaging strategies, researchers collaborated with staff members to (1) develop student outreach campaigns that simplified registration information, connected students to available financial aid, and encouraged continuous enrollment based on prior rigorous evidence about what works to encourage enrollment; and (2) design new student-centered strategies to improve student persistence during the pandemic. The messaging strategies were informed by best practices and research evidence from MDRC evaluations. These integrated approaches enabled colleges to implement new messaging campaigns to better address students’ needs and begin to implement new policies to reduce barriers to student success. This brief examines how colleges can use staff members’ perspectives to build and improve college systems for the benefit of all students.