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Nine Community Colleges Set Out to Make Big Gains in Retention and Graduation

Schools in four states are putting research findings into action to help more students from diverse and nontraditional backgrounds earn a degree.

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Robert Rundquist is practically a poster child for American community colleges.

 As a senior in high school, Rundquist knew he wanted to get his bachelor’s degree, but leaving home to attend a four-year university wasn’t a financial option. Instead, he enrolled at nearby Los Angeles Valley College in 1992.

He found himself a job as a tutor in the campus learning center, where students could seek help with coursework and mapping out their major. He wound up working there semester after semester. When graduation came around, he was offered a job leading a similar program at another school. Eventually, he worked his way up to a position as Visiting Senior Executive, Guided Pathways in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, which oversees 115 colleges serving 2.1 million students.

Rundquist’s community college degree turned out to be a stepping stone to professional success. But his career, which he has spent helping disadvantaged students, has also shown him the need for community colleges to evolve. 

So, he’s doing something about it. In partnership with MDRC, a prominent research institute, Rundquist is helping to launch a new pilot program called Scaling Up Community College Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS), which will draw on years of research in higher education about how to improve retention and graduation rates.

Too often, Rundquist has seen students who are juggling a host of challenges in and out of school drop out because they don’t have what he calls the college “capital” to navigate a complex higher education system.

Right now, he says, students spend too much time “figuring out how to connect to programs, how to get into classes, how to register for classes.”

Rather, “what we have to do is make the most challenging work the work students do in the classroom.”

30%

Graduation rate (within three years) of first-time undergraduates at two-year colleges

SUCCESS is designed to address those barriers. It is a comprehensive support program that includes coaching and advising; financial incentives to encourage students to complete the program; data infrastructure to track outcomes; and minimum credit enrollment requirements to promote completion.

According to Leigh Parise, MDRC Associate Director of Program Development and Senior Research Associate, studies show these four elements — plus an institutional commitment to sustaining programs — lead to better outcomes for students.

Improving long-term success

Now MDRC and community college administrators at nine schools in four states — California, Indiana, New Jersey, and Ohio — are working to put research findings into action with a grant from Arnold Ventures.

Chase Sackett, Arnold Ventures’ Higher Education Manager, says identifying and scaling programs that address gaps in college completion rates is a priority for the organization. Demographically similar institutions can differ widely in student completion rates, which suggests institutional practices could be a big factor in student success. 

“We’re trying to identify replicable programs that, if adopted faithfully by institutions, are likely to substantially improve student success over the long-term,” he says.

But some experts have questioned whether these interventions should be tested at community colleges, which tend to have lower completion rates overall than four-year schools.

On the contrary, says John Hutchins, MDRC’s Chief Communications Officer, there’s good reason to focus on these institutions. 

“Community colleges are really the entry point for a lot of first generation and low-income students,” says Hutchins. “It’s really an amazing success story about the access that community colleges have been able to provide for many Americans who otherwise may not be able to enter higher education.”



It’s really an amazing success story about the access that community colleges have been able to provide for many Americans who otherwise may not be able to enter higher education.
John Hutchins MDRC’s Chief Communications Officer

MDRC has spent nearly two decades studying higher education programs and policies as part of its quest to understand and address the drivers of poverty in America. In the early 2000s, researchers took a hard look whether the higher education system really was a stepping stone to the middle class, as many people hypothesized. That answer turned out to be yes: There is a financial pay-off to postsecondary education, and a community college degree is worth more than a high school diploma.

Things still didn’t quite add up. If first-generation students were enrolling in community colleges, and degrees led to better paying jobs, why weren’t more people from low-income backgrounds moving up into the middle class?

Siloed 'industrial complex'

As Rundquist explains it, students are getting lost somewhere in the siloed “industrial complex of higher education.” There was a break-down occurring in the middle as students struggled to map out their major, build their resumes, secure internships, and juggle other challenges outside of school such as food and housing insecurity.

Schools are trying to address these issues. In the past decade, many have launched student support programs or expanded existing efforts. The most well-known example is the Accelerated Study in Associate’s Programs (ASAP) at the City University of New York. ASAP was revolutionary in that it bundled several different approaches campuses were testing into one long-term program. 

“And, as everybody knows, that had transformative effects,” Hutchins says.  The program nearly doubled graduation rates, notching the largest positive effects researchers have found to date. There's also another type of comprehensive intervention, known as sectoral job training programs, that have been shown to boost graduation from certificate and associate's programs. These include Project QUEST, which led to major gains in degrees from certificate programs and long-term earnings. And the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement, which was shown to boost associate's degree attainment. 

Despite the positive research findings, the spread of these programs has been slower than some experts have anticipated. As trade press and major news outlets have written, community colleges are facing rough financial waters driven by long-term changes to funding models and significant state disinvestment. And while governments have spent a lot on programs to promote access, less money has gone to initiatives such as SUCCESS that are intended to boost completion.

Financial model for success

For those reasons and others, Hutchins and Parise believe that it’s critical that researchers and college administrators hit on a model for funding student support programs that is financially sustainable for schools. When selecting sites for the pilot, they started by reaching out to state agencies and officials such as Rundquist — rather than going to colleges — in order to ensure that SUCCESS aligns with state funding and priorities for postsecondary education.

Sackett said that institutional budgeting practices differ widely, so it would be difficult to translate funding models from one campus to another. But tapping into resources at the state level makes it easier to scale the program.

The SUCCESS pilot will also test the effectiveness of relatively low-cost student advising models and financial incentives, such as paying students who attend meetings with their advisers or providing intensive counseling to the highest-need students. And MDRC has created a tool to help institutions estimate their return on the investment made in these programs — whether that’s additional revenue from students persisting further in school or a reduction in costs for other services.

We are institutions of learning, but we also need to be learning institutions.
Robert Rundquist Interim Dean of Institutional Effectiveness & Intersegmental Partnerships at Chaffey College

Providing a picture of the long-term financial outlook could be key to the broader adoption of SUCCESS, assuming it proves to be successful, Sackett said. “Right now, schools only know the start-up cost of a program like SUCCESS. If we can help them understand what the savings to the institution could be in the long run, they might be more willing to make an investment upfront, knowing they’ll recoup that money in the long run.”  

Rundquist, who recently started a new job as Interim Dean of Institutional Effectiveness & Intersegmental Partnerships at Chaffey College, which is part of the California pilot, will be watching the numbers closely. Conducting this research is not without risks. But the fear of failure, Rundquist said, shouldn’t prevent them from trying to figure out what students need and to understand what’s working and what’s not.

“Vulnerability in our students is exactly what we ask for. They have to take risks, they have to challenge themselves. So, I think we as an educational system need to hold ourselves to that same standard,” he says. “We are institutions of learning, but we also need to be learning institutions.”