Completion by Design Evaluation


Despite the increasing importance of a postsecondary credential in today’s labor market, degree completion rates for community college students have stagnated. Two out of every three students who enroll in community college fail to earn a degree or certificate within six years, an outcome with serious consequences for their individual economic well-being as well as the strength of our national economy. While many community colleges have implemented targeted interventions to bolster student success, these effects have not changed the colleges’ overall completion rates and the programs disappear soon after the initiatives end. To sustainably and significantly increase completion rates for all community college students under the age of 26, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched Completion by Design, an initiative that, over a five-year period, asked participating community colleges to rethink and systemically change all aspects of a student’s experience from entry to exit to creating a new and accepted “way of doing business.”

MDRC’s study, which ended in 2015, focused on understanding how individual community colleges implemented this ambitious multifaceted and deep change, while simultaneously ensuring the college’s culture shifts to embrace this new way of doing business so that the reforms last. The first two post-planning years showed that despite strong commitments to change, systemically changing a community college is a harder, slower process than expected. Change leaders had to balance the goal of rapidly expanding many reforms broadly with resource constraints, the desire to pilot and refine new procedures, and the need to promote faculty and staff buy-in. Acceptance was facilitated by distributing leadership, involving staff in shaping the reforms, and showing concretely how reforms help students, but these activities slowed the change process. Only time will tell what balance between attending to faculty and staff acceptance versus diffusing the reforms broadly best leads to lasting change.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Community colleges in three states were selected to participate in Completion by Design. Together, these institutions serve more than 551,000 students. The study sought to build credible knowledge about how foundational institutional change can be facilitated at a community college. The lessons should be useful to all who hope to promote systemic change in institutions of higher education, be they funders, college administrators, or other college staff members. To investigate what factors and conditions promote change in a community college system, MDRC used a theory-based lens and focused on changes in three systems that span the spectrum of student experience from entry to developmental education to a course of study and eventual completion.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

MDRC selected five Completion by Design colleges to explore key issues in depth and produce a rich understanding of the change process. The colleges were selected to provide diversity in size, state, urban character, student mix, and types of degrees awarded.

MDRC collected data to track the process of change by interviewing administrators, faculty and staff members, and students periodically and by surveying administrators, faculty, and staff members. 

MDRC wrote a short report in 2015 to share findings from the study.