Community colleges and broad-access universities (those with minimally selective admissions policies) allow students across the United States to attain degrees and economic mobility. However, graduation rates from such colleges are often low, and many obstacles can be difficult to overcome, especially for students who must balance work or family responsibilities, older students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color who face additional systemic barriers. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced unprecedented challenges for college students, making pursuing higher education even more difficult.
Since about 2000, researchers have been collecting evidence on what forms of support are effective in helping students earn their degrees. Evidence shows that interventions that include multiple program components that support students over several years are associated with larger impacts on student outcomes. Building on the existing body of research, MDRC designed and is evaluating the Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS) program, a multifaceted student support program designed to effectively promote student success and be financially sustainable. SUCCESS combines evidence-based components, including coaches engaged in active outreach to students, monthly financial incentives for students who meet program requirements, strategies to encourage students to enroll full time, and a data-driven program management system.
Starting in 2019, 13 colleges across five states (California, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio), along with their state higher education agencies, have worked with MDRC to customize and launch SUCCESS. (Eleven of the 13 colleges are participating in the randomized controlled trial.) A previous brief presenting early findings from the first study cohort illustrated that the SUCCESS program in the 2020–2021 academic year, as adapted for the context of the pandemic, had no discernible effect on students’ academic progress. This report provides updated insight into the SUCCESS program after one year of participation for the first three evaluation student cohorts, covering fall 2020 through summer 2022. The main implementation finding from that period is that the program implementation varied by college and term and did not fully align with the SUCCESS model, primarily due to the adaptations implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, students who were offered SUCCESS had a different college experience from students in the control group—they were more likely to be told about the importance of full-time enrollment, and, on average, they had substantially more contact with their advisors or coaches.
Despite changes in the college experience across the study sites, analyses of academic data show that, on average, there are no discernible positive impacts on persistence or credit accumulation through one year for the full sample. There is, however, evidence that impacts on credit accumulation vary across colleges and cohorts. Exploratory analyses suggest that the quantity and quality of coaching, hearing that full-time enrollment is important, and taking courses in person may all be associated with improved academic outcomes. Given the pandemic’s effect on program implementation and the broader context of students’ lives, it is hard to know whether SUCCESS would have produced stronger effects if implemented as designed outside of the pandemic. Upcoming briefs will include findings from 11 colleges, longer follow-ups for the initial colleges. They will continue to explore variations in implementation and effects on academics across colleges and entering cohorts.