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Finding Quality College Completion Programs — and the Funding to Implement Them

MDRC’s database of RCTs of college completion programs appears at the moment applications open for the new College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success.

Amber Ward benefited from the ASCEND program. (Luke Sharrett/For Arnold Ventures)

Amber Ward started school under difficult circumstances. As the first person in her family to go to college, she took classes at West Virginia University while simultaneously working and caring for three kids. I was scared that I would not be able to keep up with my classes,” the now 37-year-old said.​“I was scared that I would just fail.”

While at school, she enrolled in the Accelerating Student Completion: Encouraging New Dreams (ASCEND) program, a college completion program based on the CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program, which has shown to double college completion rates in previous studies.

Her ASCEND advisor listened and helped her set plans and find a satisfying career path. I’ve realized goals that I kind of had but I didn’t know I’d be able to achieve,” Ward said. College completion programs like ASCEND are repeatedly showing, in randomized controlled trials, that they work.

In a step to support college completion, the U.S. Department of Education released a grant application to the new College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Student Success, a first-of-its-kind federal investment focused on scaling evidence-based programs to improve retention, transfer, and completion at under-resourced institutions serving low-income students. There is approximately $5 million in funding available, and the Education Department expects to make five to eight awards of between $600,000 to $1 million to run for 24 months. Applications are due Oct. 11. The priority for this grant is for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, other Minority-Serving Institutions, and institutions serving large shares of low-income students — many of which are community colleges.

AV sat down with Mike Weiss, senior fellow of postsecondary education at research powerhouse MDRC, to talk about its recent Higher Education Randomized Controlled Trial project (THE-RCT), its higher education return on investment tool, and the importance of college completion. 

Why is College Completion so Important?

Even as access to higher education has significantly expanded, students continue to struggle to complete their credentials and secure a strong return on their investments. Completing a quality degree is key to unlocking the full range of benefits of higher education, including securing meaningful employment that supports a student’s ability to repay their loans. Breaking down persistent barriers to degree completion is critically important to ensure higher education provides all students reliable pathways to more secure futures. In recent years, a number of high-quality, randomized controlled trial (RCT) evaluations have identified several programs with the potential to substantially increase student success and address equity gaps.

While the funding in the College Completion Fund this year is $5 million, the Biden administration has asked for $110 million in next year’s budget; the House Democrats’ appropriations bill asked for $200 million. A significant increase in funding would dramatically ramp up evidence-based completion initiatives and ensure more students earn a degree.

Arnold Ventures

MDRC created the largest individual-participant database from higher education randomized controlled trials. What led you to create this database?

Headshot of Mike Weiss
Mike Weiss

This database of MDRC’s community college RCTs has been 20 years in the making. It includes 31 studies of 41 interventions including 67,000 students. 

Researchers have made progress building a strong evidence base on the effects of postsecondary programs, policies, and practices. MDRC built this database to enable us (and others) to take stock of where we are with the evidence, synthesize what we’re learning, and to help draw broader lessons across this wide body of research — the kind of lessons that might be impossible to uncover when looking at a single program evaluation on its own. 

We thought it was imperative to make this database available to other researchers too. By following open science practices, it enables the field to learn more about how we can better serve the populations we care about, in my case, community college students from low-income families. I’m confident that other researchers are going to come up with creative uses of this dataset, accelerating learning in the field. 

Arnold Ventures

What are the highlights of the database? What are the impacts?

Headshot of Mike Weiss
Mike Weiss

Three key findings really strike me, and there are more outlined in our brief. First, across the student success programs in the database, the impacts of these programs on credit accumulation did not fade out. That is, the positive effects that many of these programs had on students’ academic progress during the program remained one year after the college completion program ended. Fadeout of program impacts are always of concern, so it was reassuring to see that fadeout was not present. 

Second, we found that more comprehensive programs (as measured by the number of program components, such as financial supports, enhanced advising, and tutoring), tend to have larger impacts on credit accumulation and continued enrollment. This is a finding that we had already suspected, but it was great to confirm it using a systematic approach.

Lastly, we found that interventions that promote full-time and/​or summer enrollment tend to have larger impacts than those that do not.

Arnold Ventures

Tell us about the RCTs in your database, and if you have any advice for applicants to the College Completion Fund for Postsecondary Success based on what you’ve learned.

This database covers a lot of the best, most rigorous evidence that we have out there about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of various community college interventions — learning communities, tutoring interventions, financial support interventions, CUNY ASAP, instructional reforms, and others. It contains 31 RCTs, 27 of which have been reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) and have met their evidence standards without reservations. I’m confident that the others will meet that standard as well, once they are reviewed by WWC

Institutions planning to submit an application for college completion fund dollars might want to consider what we learned from a recent synthesis examining relationships between features of community college interventions and their impacts on student progress. The evidence suggests that the impacts of community college interventions increase with the comprehensiveness of the intervention and the promotion of full-time enrollment (during fall and spring) and summer enrollment. 

These results provide food for thought about how practitioners might proceed consider using college completion fund dollars.

How MDRC’s Higher Education Intervention Return on Investment Tool Can Help Community Colleges in Their Applications

MDRC’s Intervention Return on Investment (ROI) Tool is a free, interactive web application that allows community college administrators to estimate the costs and revenues associated with implementing an intervention (for example, enhanced advising) at their college based on customized regional prices, college expenditures, tuition prices, and state funding models.

The tool comes pre-loaded with 20 community college interventions — including comprehensive student support programs, developmental education reforms, financial aid reforms, learning communities, communication campaigns, and mentoring programs — that MDRC has studied in randomized controlled trials.

Arnold Ventures

What would the impact would be if these evidence-based college completion programs were scaled up?

Headshot of Mike Weiss
Mike Weiss

If we were able to scale up CUNY ASAP, for example, and it had the same effects as our previous two randomized trials have found, it would be huge. We’re talking an average of a 16 percentage point increase in the three-year graduation rates for community college students from low-income backgrounds. It could impact hundreds of thousands of students.

However, it’s hard to know what the actual impact of scaling these evidence-based college completion programs would be because, for example, when we studied CUNY ASAP and CUNY ASAP in Ohio, it was only taken up by a subset of all eligible students, and in Ohio, CUNY provided substantial technical support to make it successful. 

If a program like CUNY ASAP was expanded to hundreds of colleges, it’s possible the impacts would be different if institutions implemented these programs without CUNY’s technical support. Nonetheless, I suspect it’s generally more promising to implement an evidence-based completion program like CUNY ASAP than choosing programs without any strong evidence.

Arnold Ventures

What do you think the administration or Congress can do to support college completion?

Headshot of Mike Weiss
Mike Weiss

I would love to see Congress support a scaling of evidence-based college completion programs across at least 50 colleges and include an evaluation as part of it.

So would AV! Arnold Ventures is committed to growing the evidence base for college completion programs. In a joint effort of AV’s Higher Education and Evidence-Based Policy initiatives, AV has released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to conduct rigorous impact evaluations of programs and practices (“interventions”) to promote college success in the United States. To learn more about the application, join our webinar on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 2 p.m. (EST). You can register for the webinar here