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Learning communities show promise in improving student success

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Zuleika Rodriguez, director of academic advisement at Kingsborough Community College (New York), talks with students participating in a learning community at the college.

Photo: Kingsborough Community College

One-semester learning communities can have long-term benefits for community college students and can even boost graduation rates, according to recently released studies from MDRC and the National Center for Postsecondary Research.

After six years, a one-semester learning community program at Kingsborough Community College (KCC) in New York boosted graduation rates by 4.6 percent, the study reported. That initiative was also found to be cost effective: The cost per degree earned was lower for students in that program than it was for KCC students not in the program.

Modest impact

Despite those figures, the results of a companion study evaluating a learning community demonstration project that targeted developmental education students found only a modest impact on credits earned in English or mathematics.

“Implementing learning communities at scale is challenging but possible,” MDRC said. “Learning communities with high levels of curricular integration are particularly hard to establish and maintain.”

Learning communities are aimed at boosting persistence by grouping small cohorts of students together in two or more thematically linked courses, usually for a single semester, while they are also given additional academic support. By giving students a chance to form stronger relationships with one another and their instructors, the premise is that they will engage more deeply in learning and thus will be more likely to pass their courses, and ultimately, graduate.

KCC’s Opening Doors program placed freshmen, most of whom needed developmental English, into groups of up to 25 students. The groups took three classes together during their first semester: English, an academic courses required for the student’s major and a freshman orientation course.

The evaluation, Commencement Day: Six-Year Effects of a Freshman Learning Community at Kingsborough Community College, reported that 35.9 percent of students in Opening Doors had earned a degree after six years, compared to 31.3 percent of students in a control group.

Students who placed into college-level English when they enrolled were most likely to earn a degree, the study found. But the study also found evidence that the program improved the long-term outcomes of students with the greatest developmental needs in English. The average student in the program earned four more credits over six years than students in the control group.

The other report, The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education, explores the outcomes of six colleges that participated in the learning communities demonstration: the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, Hillsborough Community College in Florida, Houston Community College in Texas, Merced College in California and Queensborough Community College in New York, as well as KCC.

Data for the colleges, other than KCC, found those programs had no effect on persistence, a gain of just half a credit earned in the targeted subject (English or math), no effect on credits earned on other subjects and a half-credit effect on total credits earned.

More research needed

Researchers believe the learning communities at KCC were more effective in the short term because they included a larger number of credits, provided extra academic and counseling support, offered textbook vouchers and targeted students who intended to enroll full time.

And while most participating students at KCC required developmental English, about 30 percent were ready for placement into college-level English courses. Finally, that program also received strong institutional support, including professional development opportunities for instructors.

Each of those factors might have played a role in the success of the KCC program, MDRC noted, but “the research cannot pinpoint which of these features mattered most.”

In some of the other colleges, the learning communities were not fully integrated with the curriculum, leaving open the question of whether the results would have been more significant if that had been the case.

“While the research from these studies may not be the final word on learning communities,” MDRC said, “it nonetheless increases significantly the evidence that colleges, policymakers and funders can use to inform their decisions about whether and how to offer or scale up learning communities in community colleges.”
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