Tag Archives: college completion rates

An essential practice: providing integrated academic, personal, and career support services to help more low-income students at community colleges succeed.

On February 14, we released our final implementation evaluation report on the Working Students Success Network (WSSN). This , Meeting basic needs and improving financial stability for community college students: Lessons from the Working Students Success Network implementation evaluation examines the implementation efforts of colleges involved in the WSSN – a three-year initiative at 19 colleges in four states aimed at addressing the challenges low-income community colleges face both on and off campus. One of the most important conclusions from our evaluation is that a wide array of academic, personal, and career support services need to be fully integrated into the overall culture and operations of the institution and not be limited to a distinct program.

The WSSN initiative—managed by the college reform organization Achieving the Dream—offers a systematic and integrated approach to helping low-income students succeed in college. It applies a fresh, holistic framework to encouraging student success by addressing nonacademic matters, such as students’ family and work responsibilities, financial needs beyond tuition, and the financial knowledge they need to sustain the other aspects of their lives as key components of academic success.
In our report, we note that that in the initial three years, participating institutions have made particular strides in:

  • Expanding services in areas where they had previously offered limited support, including income and work supports, financial literacy, and asset building;
  • Targeting more intensive and customized support to the students with the greatest need, including adults in basic education programs, students on public assistance, those in workforce education or training programs, and those seeking GEDs to transition into college;
  • Engaging outside partners—community-based organizations, businesses, and public human services agencies; and
  • Integrating multiple services to meet students’ basic needs and improve their financial security, including public benefits information, financial literacy, and career and employment services.

Our report also identifies key strategies undertaken by WSSN colleges, including two promising approaches for colleges that want to provide comprehensive and integrated services that address a broad spectrum of students’ basic needs and can improve their financial stability:

  • One-on-one, personalized assistance (e.g., coaching) with multiple areas and issues related to students’ basic needs and financial stability. High-touch, personalized coaching and the intensive relationships between coaches and students were widely seen by faculty, staff, and administrators as a “game changer” for addressing the complex circumstances facing students. This was especially important for students who had little or no prior experience or familiarity with postsecondary education.
  • A centralized location where students’ basic needs and financial insecurities can be addressed. A centralized one-stop shop or “hub” to provide services in a centralized location helps colleges integrate and bundle services for students. Typically, the services are provided by college staff and partners and create a highly visible symbol of how the college is daily addressing the struggles faced by low-income students.

Finally, the report identifies key factors that enabled the highest performing institutions to implement the WSSN initiative with rigor and embed it in their daily work. The mature institutions:

  • Demonstrated committed leadership and shared responsibilities across the institution;
  • Broke down silos between student service programs and key departments of the university;
  • Developed widespread “buy-in” to an integrated model of service delivery and deeper understanding of the conditions of poverty that affect their students. They extended the buy-in by elevating key services like food banks as symbolic reminders of the institution’s commitment to its students’ financial stability; and
  • Broadened engagement with and collaboration among external partners.

The completion agenda is a critical national imperative, and community colleges are core partners in this effort. Two-thirds of the nation’s 6.9 million students who attend community colleges are low-income students from families earning less than $50,000. More than one-third live below the poverty line. To get by, most community college students work either full or part time, and many are raising children, supporting parents, or contributing to family expenses. Over one-third are the first in their families to go to college and over half are people of color.

As we indicate in our report, “providing support services to address the daily struggles low-income students face to pay for food, housing, child care, health care, and transportation along with college tuition and fees should be an essential strategy of the college completion agenda.”

Derek V. Price



Colleges and universities need to focus on implementation and scale

By my account, we’re entering the second decade of the completion agenda. While the philanthropic community may have instigated this reform effort, state and federal policymakers have fueled its longevity. And of course, reform-minded institutional leaders – led by public community and technical colleges – have been at the forefront of experimentation and change to improve college completion rates.

Given the increased interest in evidence-based decision-making and public accountability, much of the prior decade’s focus on college completion has been around identifying effective practices that colleges should implement and scale. A vocal chorus of researchers and policy think tanks has argued that rigorous evidence, especially experimental studies, should be the benchmark for deciding if a practice is effective or not. In a handful of cases, such studies have provided causal evidence of impact – most recently an MDRC study of the Accelerated Study in Associates Program (ASAP) in the CUNY system.

Although most researchers and practitioners agree that a “silver bullet” will not be found – the overarching focus on experimental studies unfortunately implies the opposite. I am not suggesting that we should stop pursuing causal evidence of effective practices; but I do believe that improving students’ progress towards college completions could benefit from a more intentional and systematic focus on implementation and scale.

Colleges and universities should be expanding a slew of innovative practices they already provide on their campuses – but that few students are benefiting. As we document in our recent report – Case-Informed Lessons for Scaling Innovation at Community and Technical Colleges – the challenge facing institutions to expand the number and proportion of students earning credentials does not appear to be a lack of knowledge about effective postsecondary practices. [I’ll leave the arguments about various standards of evidence for another blog]. Rather, college and university leaders need to better understand how to implement and scale innovative practices if we are to significantly raise completion rates.

Implementation and scale is the responsibility of the entire institution. It is a challenge for both academic affairs and student affairs. It is also a challenge for stakeholders providing basic operational functions in support of an institution’s mission and values. Scale requires leaders throughout the institution – at many levels of hierarchy and responsibility, and across divisions and departments – to address deeper, systemic policies and procedures that touch all aspects of organizational behavior.

While scale should be measured numerically in terms of the numbers of students benefiting from effective practices, achieving scale requires attention to a process of change that alters the beliefs and norms of social interactions among college stakeholders. Building on the important work of scholars like Cynthia Coburn and Adrianna Kezar, we’ve identified five transformative ingredients that – if intentionally addressed – can create the conditions needed for scale to occur.

1. Alignment with institutional planning and accountability processes through leadership and commitment across divisions and departments that are broadly inclusive of administrators, faculty, and staff.

2. Sufficient human and financial resources to generate buy-in and support from a broad base of stakeholders, and require financial and administrative prioritization.

3. Increased institutional research capacity, and improved systems to collect, analyze, and discuss data, to provide better evidence for continuous improvement and to monitor and refine implementation.

4. Transparent and supportive policies and practices that involves inclusive engagement of stakeholders to design and vet necessary policy and practice changes, and shared responsibility for action within their respective divisional and departmental lines of authority.

5. Access to networks of institutions and other stakeholder organizations also supporting systems and culture to create momentum and “peer-pressure” to sustain commitment to institutional transformation.

There is not single pathway to achieve scale. The fundamental lesson for colleges and universities, while addressing these five transformative ingredients, is to account for the their unique institutional culture, existing tensions, preferred ways of working, as well as key supporters and detractors on campus – and be responsive to this context.

Derek V. Price