Oscar
Cerna
Research Associate, Postsecondary Education

Cerna’s work at MDRC concentrates on implementation research and program development at various community colleges across the country. He has been involved in several large-scale projects focused on student success initiatives, including Achieving the Dream, the University System of Georgia’s African American Male Initiative, the Adult Basic Education study, the Learning Communities Demonstration, and the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration. As part of the Postsecondary Education policy area, Cerna serves as the project director for the Latino Academic Transfer and Institutional Degree Opportunities (LATIDO) project, which examines institutional initiatives that improve college outcomes for Latino college students attending Hispanic-Serving Institutions in California. Before joining MDRC, Cerna conducted research and evaluation for WestEd and for Bay Area Community Resources. A former community college graduate himself, Cerna transferred to the University of California-Irvine as an undergraduate and continued on to graduate school at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

  • MDRC Publications

      Issue Focus

      Lessons from Growth Sector’s STEM Core Program

      July, 2021
      Oscar Cerna, Marco Lepe, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

      Millions of community college students, particularly students of color and women, don’t complete the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses critical to succeeding in the modern economy. This brief examines one program that combines increased academic support, out-of-classroom activities, accelerated coursework, and other components to help improve student outcomes.

      Report

      Early Implementation Findings from a Study of the Male Student Success Initiative

      November, 2020

      Men of color complete college at lower rates than their fellow students. To help overcome this gap, many colleges have programs offering academic and social support to male students of color. This report summarizes MDRC’s evaluation of one such program at the Community College of Baltimore County.

      Report

      A Study of a Transition Program Serving Students with Low Math Skills at a Community College

      March, 2020
      Angela Boatman, Oscar Cerna, Kayla Reiman, John Diamond, Mary Visher, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

      A four-week course to prepare students for developmental-level math did not attract many students who were referred to it. While some participants gained needed skills, most did not complete the course or move on to developmental math, and communication about the course among staff, faculty, advisors, and students was inconsistent.

      Brief

      Boot Camp at Tarrant County College

      November, 2019

      This study examined a “Boot Camp” program designed to reinforce basic mathematics functions for college students with limited math, reading, and writing skills, to prepare them for developmental-level courses. Three features made the program unique: computer-assisted, self-paced learning; a focus on individual learner progress; and in-class help from College-Readiness Advisors.

      Report

      Final Report on Aid Like A Paycheck

      May, 2019

      This study, implemented at two community college systems in Texas and one in California, tested whether biweekly disbursements of financial aid rather than lump sum payments could help students budget more efficiently and improve their academic and financial outcomes. Overall, this approach did not have substantial impacts on student outcomes.

      Report

      Lessons on Advancing Latino Success from California’s LATIDO Project

      May, 2019

      Latinos are California’s fastest growing population, but less than one in four earn a college degree. A new study from the Latino Academic Transfer and Institutional Degree Opportunities (LATIDO) project examines how five California Hispanic Serving Institutions are working to improve the college achievement rate of this community.

      Brief

      Insights from the LATIDO Roundtable

      April, 2018

      Latinos are enrolling in California colleges in rising numbers, but their outcomes lag behind those of white students. The Latino Academic Transfer and Institutional Degree Opportunities project is examining the approaches taken by Hispanic-Serving Institutions in California to improve the rates at which they transfer to universities and complete college.

      Brief

      New Approaches to Serving the Lowest-Skilled Students at Community Colleges in Texas and Beyond

      October, 2017
      Mary Visher, Oscar Cerna, John Diamond, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

      Faced with many applicants with very low math skills, community colleges are responding with a variety of reforms, including restricting developmental courses to students with high-school-level skills. This brief provides context for the policy changes and describes the alternatives two colleges offer to those who don’t make the cut.

      Report

      Interim Findings on Aid Like A Paycheck

      June, 2017

      This study examines whether an alternative approach to distributing financial aid — in biweekly payments instead of one or two lump sums — can improve outcomes for low-income community college students. After one semester, the policy reduced students’ debt and use of federal loans but showed little consistent evidence of academic effects.

      Brief

      Promising Approaches and Next Steps

      December, 2016
      Alissa Gardenhire, Oscar Cerna

      A significant gap in the rates of college degree attainment persists between men of color and their white counterparts. This brief catalogues strategies commonly used in interventions at postsecondary educational institutions aimed at improving outcomes for male students of color and charts the way forward for future evaluative work.

      Brief

      Early Lessons from Completion by Design

      September, 2015
      Jean Grossman, Janet Quint, Jessica Gingrich, Oscar Cerna, John Diamond, Andrew Levine, Jacklyn Willard

      Only about 20 percent of full-time degree-seeking students entering public two-year schools earn a degree within three years. In seeking solutions, community colleges typically focus on one institutional problem at a time. This brief looks at the experiences of five community colleges attempting a systemwide reform to substantially increase completion rates.

      Working Paper

      Results from a Performance-Based Scholarship Experiment

      June, 2015
      Melissa Binder, Kate Krause, Cynthia Miller, Oscar Cerna

      This random assignment study examines the long-term impacts of a program at The University of New Mexico offering low-income first-year students enhanced academic advising and financial aid that is contingent on performance. It finds that the program increased credit hour accumulation during the first two years and graduation rates after five years.

      Report

      Implementation and Interim Impact Findings from the Communities In Schools Evaluation

      April, 2015

      Services to help students stay in school are often fragmented. In this program, school-based coordinators identify students at risk, work with them to assess their needs, connect them with school and community supports, and monitor their progress. Case-managed students received more services than others, but early impact findings are inconclusive.

      Report

      Lessons from the First Round of Achieving the Dream Community Colleges

      April, 2014
      Alexander Mayer, Oscar Cerna, Dan Cullinan, Kelley Fong, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Davis Jenkins

      Launched in 2004, Achieving the Dream is designed to help community colleges collect and analyze student performance data and apply the results to help students succeed. This report offers lessons from the first 26 colleges to join the national initiative, which now includes more than 200 institutions.

      Report

      A Technical Assistance Guide for Developing and Implementing Performance-Based Scholarships

      February, 2014

      Drawing on the findings and experiences of two research demonstrations that tested the effectiveness of performance-based scholarships, this guide provides helpful information for colleges and scholarship-granting organizations on this type of aid, which can reduce the financial burden on low-income students while offering incentives for good academic progress.

      Report

      A Case Study of Peer Leader Programs at Two Achieving the Dream Colleges

      February, 2012

      Northern Essex Community College and Bunker Hill Community College employed academically successful students to serve as peer leaders to offer additional classroom assistance to fellow students in developmental and introductory college-level courses. The report discusses how the colleges designed and implemented these programs and offers insights into students’ experiences in peer-assisted courses.

      Report

      Impact Studies at Merced College and The Community College of Baltimore County

      February, 2012
      Evan Weissman, Dan Cullinan, Oscar Cerna, Stephanie Safran, Phoebe Richman

      Two colleges implemented semester-long learning communities linking developmental English with a range of other courses. At Merced, learning communities students earned more developmental English credits and passed more English courses than a control group. At CCBC, there were no meaningful impacts on students’ credit attempts or progress. Neither college’s program had an impact on persistence or on cumulative credits earned.

      Report

      Five Years of Achieving the Dream in Community Colleges

      February, 2011
      Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Thomas Brock, Genevieve Orr, Oscar Cerna, Dan Cullinan, Monica Reid Kerrigan, Davis Jenkins, Susan Gooden, Kasey Martin

      This interim report examines the experiences of the first 26 colleges to join the ambitious Achieving the Dream initiative. Launched by Lumina Foundation for Education in 2004, Achieving the Dream helps community colleges collect and analyze student performance data in order to build a “culture of evidence,” enabling the colleges to use that knowledge to develop programs to increase students’ academic success.

      Report

      An Impact Evaluation of the Beacon Program at South Texas College

      February, 2010
      Mary Visher, Kristin F. Butcher, Oscar Cerna

      Created as part of the national Achieving the Dream initiative, a “light touch” intervention targeting students enrolled in lower-level math courses increased the number of students using campus tutoring and academic services. While the program has not improved math class pass rates or persistence in college overall, it has had positive effects for part-time and developmental students.

      Report

      Lessons from the SSPIRE Initiative

      July, 2009
      Evan Weissman, Oscar Cerna, Christian Geckeler, Emily Schneider, Derek V. Price, Thomas J. Smith

      This report describes how community colleges in California that participated in the Student Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education (SSPIRE) initiative took steps to better serve low-income and underprepared students by integrating student support services with academic instruction.

  • Other Publications

  • Projects