5 ways to boost community college completion rates

A graduate holds their mortarboard cap after a commencement ceremony at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California, U.S., May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon - RC1D6F551E10

Community colleges can play a pivotal role in providing individuals with viable pathways into the American middle class, maintaining a strong workforce, and building a competitive 21st-century economy. Delivering on this promise requires innovative solutions to increase the number of community college students who complete a postsecondary credential or degree.

These policy recommendations, part of a new report from the Brown Center on Education Policy, are designed to help college leaders, employers, researchers, and policymakers identify steps to improve community college completion rates.

Policy recommendations

1. Address both structural and motivational barriers to community college completion.

The structural problems discussed in the full report–such as unclear pathways from enrollment to graduation, enormous student-to-adviser ratios that make it challenging to provide one-on-one support, and a lack of easily navigable support services–are fundamental barriers to college completion. Addressing these issues should be a core component of colleges’ strategies to increase completion rates.

In providing clearer pathways from enrollment to graduation, addressing the structural barriers may help to alleviate some of the motivational barriers that students face. On a more granular level, colleges can also address motivational barriers by supporting instructors, employer partners, and advisers in implementing strategies like the expectancy-value (EV) interventions described in Section 3 of the full report that help students draw connections between their coursework and their lives. These interventions may be feasible, relatively low-cost ways to help students find value in their coursework before, during, and after a college’s transition from a cafeteria-style model to a guided pathways model. However, without addressing the structural problems inherent in a cafeteria-style model, fundamental barriers to completion remain.

The importance of implementing structural changes bears underscoring. Encouragingly, research suggests that EV interventions that are well tailored to specific courses can produce positive outcomes for students in those courses (Hullemen et al. 2010). At the same time, it is likely that addressing structural barriers is essential to realizing the full potential of EV interventions in a community college context. Take, for example, the proposition of including EV interventions in student orientation. Orientation may be optional, and students do not necessarily take advantage of advising services offered during this process (Bailey et al. 2015, p. 55). Incorporating EV interventions into orientation, while useful in theory, may have limited impact if a small share of incoming students participate. Similarly, in cafeteria-style colleges, this type of intervention may be difficult to implement effectively through advising sessions, as students may not meet regularly enough or long enough with advisers for these interventions to work. As part of a guided pathways model where students meet regularly with advisers for longer sessions, however, implementing EV interventions through advisement services may be feasible. Advisers could assign a writing prompt or incorporate into their conversations questions designed to help students think about the relevance of their coursework to their career and education goals. Overall, structural improvements could facilitate effective incorporation of EV interventions into multiple aspects of students’ community college experiences.

2. Apply lessons from proven and promising models.

There is a strong and convincing case that the cafeteria-style model impedes students from completing credentials and degrees (Scott-Clayton 2011; Holzer and Baum 2017; Bailey et al. 2015). Fortunately, evidence from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), discussed in Section 2 of the full report, illustrates that interventions aligned with the guided pathways approach have resulted in dramatically higher completion rates among program participants. Community colleges interested in adopting a guided pathways model can learn from CUNY’s ASAP program. Resources include the evaluation by MDRC discussed in Section 2 of the full report (Scrivener et al. 2015) and a resource guide to ASAP produced by CUNY (Boykin and Prince 2015). Community colleges can also learn from applications of the ASAP approach in other contexts, including elsewhere in New York, California, and Ohio. Results from these evaluations can provide insight into whether and how to tailor the original ASAP program to community colleges outside the CUNY system. Drawing on this growing research base, colleges can adapt tested models of the guided pathways approach to meet their needs.

In addition, Bailey et al. (2015) offer a comprehensive review of the guided pathways approach, along with examples of ways in which different colleges have pursued these types of reforms. These recommendations can inform pilot programs designed to test new approaches that address the problems inherent in the cafeteria-style model.

3. Leverage emerging technologies to reduce structural barriers, particularly in the context of student support services.

One dimension of the guided pathways approach is improving advisement and student support services. The ASAP program, for example, reduced the student-to-adviser ratio. However, similar changes may be impractical for many community college systems given their potential cost. Fortunately, innovative research that leverages emerging technology has identified scalable, cost-effective mechanisms to provide students with targeted support.

Researchers Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page, in their book “Summer Melt: Supporting Low Income Students through the Transition to College,” describe the potential to use multiple strategies, including text messaging outreach, to reduce “summer melt,” wherein students who were accepted to and intend to enroll in college do not matriculate in the fall (p. 2). They offer detailed guidelines for how to adapt these lessons, which can serve as a starting point for colleges seeking strategies to strengthen their student support services.

More broadly, this work provides a foundation for leveraging emerging technologies to reach many more students than was possible before. Lindsay Page and Hunter Gehlbach recently partnered with Georgia State University and AdmitHub to reduce summer melt using Pounce, an artificial intelligence chatbot that uses individually tailored text message outreach (Page and Gehlbach 2017). They describe the positive results of the program as follows: “Students planning to go to GSU who received Pounce outreach completed their required pre-matriculation tasks and enrolled on-time at significantly higher rates than those who received GSU’s standard outreach. Pounce reduced GSU’s summer melt by 21%. These impacts mirror previous summer melt interventions but with far fewer staff.”

Thus, one viable avenue for improving student support and advisement services is through tailored outreach and support using technological innovations. While these examples focus on reducing summer melt, there is reason to be optimistic that this type of outreach may be valuable in additional areas of student support services. Indeed, Bailey et al. (2015) recommend leveraging technology to improve case management systems and provide feedback to students on their progress. To effectively incorporate “e-adivsing” innovations, they argue that “colleges must set in place some foundational program structures, encourage end-users to use the tools in their daily lives, and integrate human points of contact into the system” (p. 71).

4. Rigorously pilot and evaluate expectancy value interventions.

As discussed in Section 3 of the full report, EV interventions that help students see the relevance of their coursework for their lives can have powerful effects on student outcomes, including increased interest in a subject and improved academic performance. Particularly when paired with a guided pathways approach that helps students navigate the college environment, this type of intervention may help students perceive the relevance between their coursework and their career and education goals. Community colleges, employer partners, and research partners should design evidence-based pilot programs and rigorously evaluate their outcomes to identify the most effective strategies to incorporate EV interventions in students’ community college experiences.

Correct implementation of EV interventions is important to obtain the desired results. Recent research on a different type of intervention delivered in an education setting suggests that the level of fidelity matters for student outcomes (Horowitz et al. 2018). Thus, pilot programs should include adequate training for those who implement the intervention. Ideally, these pilot programs will use a randomized control trial approach to assess the effect of these interventions on relevant student outcomes (see Scrivener and Coghlan 2011 for a brief discussion of the benefits of randomization), such as academic performance, interest in the course and the relevant field of study, persistence, and graduation rates.

In addition, colleges, employer partners, and research partners should consider the following questions when developing pilot programs:

  • How frequently should instructors include EV assignments in their coursework?
  • How long should EV writing assignments be such that they are effective without being overly burdensome in terms of students’ and instructors’ time?
  • How can instructors tailor these assignments to the particular courses they are responsible for?
  • What kind of resources, initial training, and/or ongoing professional development is necessary to support instructors in effectively implementing these interventions?

With appropriate attention to program design, professional development, evaluation, and improvement, community colleges could incorporate these interventions into different aspects of students’ experiences, including the following:

  • Regular coursework
  • Employer content delivered as part of public-private partnerships/career pathways
  • Developmental coursework
  • Student success courses
  • Initial orientation and intake sessions
  • Advising sessions

5. Evaluate innovative efforts and disseminate information widely.

In addition to knowing how well a program works, college leaders, employer partners, and policymakers need answers to practical questions about how to implement effective programs. Embedding the following types of questions into evaluations of guided pathways reforms would provide valuable insight into how to implement these changes:

  • What motivated college leaders to implement these changes?
  • How did college leaders convince stakeholders to invest in a guided pathways approach?
  • How were programs tailored to local contexts without sacrificing the key components?
  • What resources were necessary to design and implement these changes?

Furthermore, employers that partner with colleges to provide training and education programs related to career pathways may be interested in drawing on the guided pathways approach in their work with community colleges. Questions that may serve as a starting point for exploring these possibilities include:

  • What challenges do existing programs face in terms of retention and completion?
  • How can employers and colleges incorporate a guided pathways approach in their career pathways programs to address these issues? What adjustments to existing programs are necessary?
  • What steps can the college and employers take to jointly navigate these changes productively?
  • Research-practice partnerships may be particularly valuable in developing, implementing, and evaluating guided pathways reforms. Programs designed without practitioners’ input are unlikely to meet the needs of a college’s student population, and researchers can help to ensure that the program design draws on available evidence and allows for rigorous evaluation and policy learning. Ultimately, partnerships between researchers, colleges, and employers can lead to programs based on a deep understanding of the student population, the college system, and the local labor market. Working together, these partners can develop evidence-based innovations, continuously improve their programs, and share their results with the wider research, policy, and education communities. This work can help create a shared road map to reducing barriers to community college completion.



Improving community college completion rates should be a top priority for policymakers at all levels of government, employers, community colleges, and the philanthropic community. Earning a postsecondary credential or degree provides a gateway to higher average earnings and opens up career pathways for graduates, while higher completion rates help strengthen the American workforce. Yet, far too many students who enroll in community college do not complete a degree. While not the subject of this analysis, academic and financial barriers loom large for many students. Ongoing efforts to improve the quality of public K-12 education and to make college more affordable are essential to improving completion rates.

As discussed at length in the full report, improving completion rates also requires addressing structural and motivational barriers that students face. Transitioning from the cafeteria-style model to a guided pathways approach is a promising strategy to reduce structural barriers. These structural changes can pave the way for helping students overcome motivational barriers (Oyserman and Lewis 2017). In addition, through EV interventions, instructors can help students perceive the relevance of their coursework for their lives.

Community colleges hold enormous potential for students across the United States. Realizing this full potential is vital for students to obtain the education and training they need to pursue their career goals, obtain good-paying jobs, and contribute to a vibrant American economy. Moving forward, we must invest in innovative, evidence-based solutions, enable students to complete postsecondary credentials and degrees, and ultimately help them achieve their academic and career goals.


Bailey, Thomas, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. Redesigning Americas Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Boykin, Daniela, and Amy Prince. “Inside ASAP: A Resource Guide on Program Structure, Components, and Management.” Office of Academic Affairs, City University of New York, 2015.

Castleman, Benjamin L., and Lindsay C. Page. Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students through the Transition to College. Harvard Education Press. 8 Story Street First Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138, 2014. The City University of New York. “ASAP: Replication.”

Holzer, Harry J. and Sandy Baum. Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2017.

Horowitz, Eric, Nicholas Sorensen, Nicholas Yoder, and Daphna Oyserman. “Teachers can do it: scalable identity-based motivation intervention in the classroom.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 54 (2018): 12-28.

Hulleman, Chris S., Olga Godes, Bryan L. Hendricks, and Judith M. Harackiewicz. “Enhancing Interest and Performance With a Utility Value Intervention.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 880th ser., 102, no. 4 (2010): 880-95. doi:10.1037/a0019506.

Oyserman, Daphna, and Neil A. Lewis. “Seeing the destination AND the path: Using identity‐based motivation to understand and reduce racial disparities in academic achievement.” Social Issues and Policy Review 11, no. 1 (2017): 159-194.

Page, Lindsay C. and Hunter Gehlbach. “How an artificially intelligent virtual assistant helps students navigate the road to college.” AERA Open 3, no. 4 (2017): 2332858417749220.

Page, Linsey C. and Hunter Gehlbach. “How Georgia State Used an Algorithm to Help Students Navigate the Road to College.” Harvard Business Review, January 2018.

Scott-Clayton, Judith. The Shapeless River: Does a Lack of Structure Inhibit Students’ Progress at Community Colleges? Report. Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. New York, NY: Community College Research Center, 2011.

Scrivener, Susan and Erin Coghlan. “Opening Doors to Student Success: A Synthesis of Findings from an Evaluation at Six Community Colleges.” Report. MDRC, 2011.

Scrivener, Susan, Michael J. Weiss, Alyssa Ratledge, Timothy Rudd, Colleen Sommo, and Hannah Fresques. “Doubling Graduation Rates: Three-Year Effects of CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) for Developmental Education Students.” Report. MDRC. New York, NY: MDRC, 2015.