'Achieving the Dream' Produces Little Change at Community Colleges

February 09, 2011

Seven years into an ambitious project to help more community-college students stay enrolled and graduate, a study has found that while colleges have changed their practices significantly, student outcomes have remained relatively unchanged.

Most of the original 26 colleges in the Achieving the Dream project have relied on data to drive strategies designed to increase student achievement—for example, the introduction of learning communities and courses in how to succeed in college. But those efforts have not resulted in more students' completing developmental courses, a necessity for the many underprepared students who hope to complete degree or certificate programs.

The report, "Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges," examines the 26 community colleges that joined the project in 2004 and tracks their progress through spring 2009. It was conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit social-policy-research organization, and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

The Lumina Foundation for Education created Achieving the Dream to improve success among community-college students, particularly low-income students and students of color. The idea is to help the colleges build a "culture of evidence" by using data to track students' performance over time and to identify barriers to academic progress.

From there, community colleges are expected to develop strategies to improve student outcomes, conduct further research on student progress, and expanding effective pilot programs.

Since the start of the project, students' performance in developmental courses in math and English has remained relatively unchanged. About 25 percent of those assigned to developmental math completed the sequence of courses within their first two years of college; the proportion in developmental English is 40 percent.

Nor was there substantial change in students' persistence in or completion of developmental reading.

Lumina, which has put $76-million into the project, has acknowledged that meaningful change requires a longer-term effort.

The study's findings are not surprising, said Thomas Brock, director of policy for young adults and postsecondary education at MDRC, given that community colleges had never undertaken such a major effort. He expected more-promising results next year, when another report is scheduled to be released.

"We are certainly not shying away from the results," he said. "But at the same time, we are seeing a lot of good progress in terms of colleges' laying the foundation needed for student success."

Colleges Made Some Gains

Four out of five colleges had put into effect most of the practices associated with creating a moderate to strong "culture of evidence," such as developing more-sophisticated data analyses and more-efficient systems for monitoring efforts to improve student achievement. The one-fifth of colleges that struggled with many of the recommended practices were hindered primarily by weak institutional-research capacity, the study found.

Colleges that made the greatest strides shared several key characteristics, including broad-based support from administrators, faculty, and staff; strong institutional research departments that produced accessible reports on student achievement; regular evaluations of their programs; and an ability to scale up successful programs.

Mr. Brock said the financial and technical assistance provided to colleges by Lumina at the beginning of the project improved their chances of creating that "culture of evidence." But it hadn't been enough to change student outcomes—yet, at least.

"Ultimately," Mr. Brock said, "the success of Achieving the Dream is dependent on the colleges' own commitment to the work."