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Columbia University

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The National Center for Postsecondary Research aims to tackle a critical question for our nation: How do we help students both make the transition to college and master the skills needed to advance to a degree?

Every year, poor academic preparation prevents millions of students nationwide from accessing, achieving in, or completing higher education. And while colleges have implemented programs and policies to help students succeed, there is little hard evidence about the effects of such practices. The National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) uses rigorous research methods to evaluate programs used by two- and four-year institutions in order to help remedy this problem.

NCPR is housed at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, and is operated in collaboration with partners MDRC and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and with a professor at Harvard University. The Center was established in 2006 and is funded by a grant of $9,813,619 from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education.

Through its research, NCPR aims to:

•    Reduce barriers to college and other education programs
•    Ease students’ transition from high school to college
•    Make college advancement easier
•    Increase college completion rates

The NCPR Research Agenda

Weak academic preparation and inadequate social skills impede access to and achievement in higher education for millions of young people. Students who graduate from high school are often judged to be ill-prepared for college-level studies. Many who do enroll in college struggle academically, often withdrawing from college before completing a degree. These general problems pervade two-year and four-year institutions, although, as open-access institutions, community colleges tend to enroll many of the students who face the greatest challenges.

In response to these problems, postsecondary institutions employ programs to strengthen student skills and provide institutional supports at or even before the point of entry as a means both to enhance student access and to build a foundation for subsequent success and graduation. NCPR research focuses on several such programs: developmental education, with a particular emphasis on learning communities; summer bridge programs, which aim to raise the skills of incoming students in the summer before they enter college; and dual enrollment programs, which enable high school students to enroll in college courses and earn college credit.

Considerable resources are being devoted to each of these strategies. And although there are a growing number of studies of these models, most suffer from methodological problems that prevent causal estimates of program effectiveness. There is, in fact, little definitive research on the effectiveness of any of these models in improving students’ transition to college and persistence once there.

Thus, for learning communities and summer bridge programs, NCPR is conducting random assignment experimental studies that will generate internally valid estimates of program effects. These projects focus on the tracking of post-program student outcomes and include associated qualitative research to understand implementation and treatment variability, which will also generate insights into why programs are or are not effective.

In addition, NCPR is conducting quasi-experimental analyses of dual enrollment and developmental education using longitudinal unit record datasets from several states. The use of large state unit record datasets is a relatively new approach to research on postsecondary practice and policy. Using a variety of quantitative methodologies, researchers will estimate the influence of these programs on student outcomes. The results from these analyses will be used to supplement, extend, and verify the conclusions of NCPR’s experiments. 

While these activities define its core research agenda, NCPR also conducts research on other topics, chosen in collaboration with IES. For example, IES provides partial support for an ongoing NCPR-related project on the financial aid application process called the H&R Block FAFSA experiment, described below.

Current State of NCPR Research

Summer bridge programs. NCPR is engaged in a study of summer bridge programs at eight sites in Texas. Funds from IES and Houston Endowment support the work of the participating colleges. The purpose of this experimental research is to assess the effectiveness of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) sponsored Developmental Summer Bridge (DSB) model in improving college preparation and success for students who are in need of remediation. The state of Texas has not been immune to the challenges presented by underprepared students, leading the Texas legislature to provide funding to the THECB to target at-risk students for participation in DSB programs, which offer intensive developmental education services during the summer before students enter college. These programs are viewed as a promising intervention to help students arrive at college in the fall ready to enroll in college-credit bearing classes. They aim to promote college readiness and reduce or even eliminate the need for developmental education.

Researchers have worked closely with participating colleges to recruit students who are defined as “at risk” based on criteria put forth by the legislature and who are likely to be placed into developmental education when they enter college. Students have been chosen by random assignment to participate in the limited number of slots available in these bridge programs. Students participating in DSB programs, as well as those not selected (the control group), have been asked to allow researchers to use their transcript data to analyze such key outcomes as subsequent enrollment in college, college placement test scores, need for developmental education, performance in college, and credit accumulation while in college. The results will indicate whether participation in a DSB program influences short- and medium-term student outcomes and lessens the need for remediation. By providing evidence of the effectiveness of summer bridge programs in accelerating college readiness and promoting student persistence, the results of this evaluation will have both state and national policy implications.

Learning communities. A major NCPR study on learning communities is underway. Learning communities are a popular strategy that community colleges nationwide have embraced in support of developmental students. In a learning community, a cohort of students takes two or more courses linked by integrated themes and assignments that are developed through ongoing faculty collaboration. Led by researchers from MDRC, NCPR is conducting a study evaluating learning communities for students in need of remediation at six community colleges around the country. The sites include a wide range of learning community models, with some focused on developmental math, others focused on developmental English or reading, and one with a career focus. These courses are linked with student success courses, other developmental courses, and college content courses in different configurations across the sites.

Transcript-level data are being used to evaluate the impact of assigning students to a learning community, using the following outcome measures: registration for any courses; number of courses attempted (regular and developmental); number of courses passed (regular and developmental); course withdrawals; English and/or math test scores; total semesters enrolled; total credits earned; GPA; course-level information, including course title and possible credits; major; degrees or certificates awarded; and transfer to other postsecondary institutions. A paper that summarizes previous research on learning communities and that describes the design of this study --The Learning Communities Demonstration: Rationale, Sites, and Research Design by Visher, M. G., Wathington, H., Richburg-Hayes, L., and Schneider, E. -- was released in 2008. A report on the early implementation findings and on baseline characteristics -- Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community Colleges by Visher, M. G., Schneider, E., Wathington, H., and Collado, H. -- was released in March 2010. (All NCPR publications are available on the NCPR website, here)

Dual enrollment. The Community College Research Center has for some time carried out research on dual enrollment programs. While such programs were once limited to high-achieving, academically focused students, today many educators and policymakers view dual enrollment as a strategy to help a wider range of students, including career and technical education students, make the transition from high school to college. To further strengthen the research base on dual enrollment, IES is, through NCPR, providing some funding for the evaluation of the Concurrent Courses Initiative.

This initiative, primarily funded by The James Irvine Foundation, provides support to eight secondary/postsecondary partnerships in California as they develop, enhance, and expand career-focused dual enrollment programs particularly for low-income or underrepresented youth. Participating students will be tracked over time and their outcomes compared to similar non-participants. Researchers will also assess the possibility of conducting subsequent experimental research on the programs.

State data analysis. NCPR is engaged in large-scale studies using state unit record data that complement its random assignment research. In 2008, a paper on the impact of remedial courses in Florida was released -- The Impact of Postsecondary Remediation Using a Regression Discontinuity Approach: Addressing Endogenous Sorting and Noncompliance by Juan Carlos Calcagno and Bridget Terry Long. A summary of the same study is also available as an NCPR Brief titled Evaluating the Impact of Remedial Education in Florida Community Colleges: A Quasi-Experimental Regression Discontinuity Design. A second paper using Florida data that examines how the impact of remediation varies by type of student (by gender, race, and age, for example) will soon be available. NCPR is also conducting an analysis on the effects of remediation in the state of Tennessee.

Building on a project that began at the Community College Research Center, NCPR researchers are also conducting quantitative analyses of dual enrollment using Florida data. The original project (see The Postsecondary Achievement of Participants in Dual Enrollment: An Analysis of Student Outcomes in Two States [2007], by Karp, M. M., Calcagno, J. C., Hughes, K. L., Jeong, D. W., and Bailey, T.) found positive relationships between participation in dual enrollment and a range of postsecondary outcomes. Using more data and different statistical techniques, NCPR researchers will estimate the strength of any causal relationship between dual enrollment and those outcomes.

Financial aid. NCPR research on financial aid is led by Bridget Terry Long of Harvard University, whose comprehensive review of research findings on the effects of aid on college access, titled What Is Known About The Impact of Financial Aid? Implications for Policy, was released in 2008. IES also provides partial support for the H&R Block FAFSA experiment, co-led by Dr. Long. This project, undertaken in Ohio and North Carolina, provided an intervention to streamline both the aid application process and students’ access to accurate and personalized higher education financial aid information. The intervention consisted of H&R Block tax professionals helping low- to middle-income families in the treatment group complete the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) and giving these families an immediate estimate of their eligibility for federal and state financial aid as well as information about local postsecondary education options. Initial results suggest that the intervention increased college enrollment for young adults with no prior college experience. Results from the study are available in a paper titled The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results and Implications from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment (2009), by Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos, P., and Sanbonmatsu, L.