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Gates Foundation Funds Community College Postsecondary Research Project

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College in New York City's Columbia University has received a three-year $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help identify the most productive investments in community colleges for the foundation's Postsecondary Success (PS) initiative. Owing to their open-access admission policies and relatively low tuition rates, community colleges enroll a high proportion of young adults from low-income families. The goal of the PS initiative, launched last year, is to double the number of low-income students who by age 26 earn a postsecondary degree or credential.

Led by director Thomas Bailey, CCRC will produce a set of concrete recommendations for the PS initiative by early 2012. These recommendations will be based on a synthesis of knowledge gained from past research, from ongoing studies by other organizations, and from a new set of CCRC studies chosen to supplement what is known about increasing community college student success.

"College enrollment rates have grown rapidly over the past 40 years, but completion rates haven't kept pace," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success, at the Gates Foundation. "Getting students to college isn't enough--we must help them get through college."

The studies will examine seven strategies based on promising but largely untested ideas about what works to increase community college completion rates for low-income young adults:

  • Assessing incoming students' needs, not just their level of academic skills (sometimes called "actionable assessment").
  • Providing highly structured and focused programs. Underprepared students are more likely to complete programs that are highly structured and focused, especially when they're aimed at preparation for credentials and job placement in career fields.
  • Offering high-quality and engaging online courses to increase access, improving progression through school for low-income and underprepared students.
  • Accelerating the pace of remedial instruction and thereby reducing the time needed to complete that instruction or encouraging students to enroll in higher level courses where additional academic support is provided.
  • Contextualizing basic skills instruction in the teaching of academic or occupational content. The idea is that low-skill students can learn more effectively and can advance to college-level programs more readily when skills are taught in the context of instruction in a content area.
  • Providing underprepared students with "student success" courses and other non-academic supports. Students who enroll in college underprepared for college-level work benefit from assistance with college and career planning and from instruction in "student success" skills, in addition to academic remediation.
  • Aligning programs and services to support student progression and success. The program believes that institutions that are most effective in serving disadvantaged students are those that align and manage their programs and services strategically to increase the success of such students.

The project will have a nine-member research advisory board made up of researchers as well as college presidents with strong research backgrounds or state officials or researchers at the state level. Specific plans for the studies will be discussed with advisory board members. The board will also review the initial results of the literature reviews and discuss whether those findings imply any changes in direction for the overall project. The board will also meet to discuss the results from specific studies and to deliberate on draft recommendations for the PS initiative.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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