Community colleges, which tend to be accessible and affordable, serve as a critical resource for low-income individuals striving to improve their prospects in the labor market and life. However, a variety of factors, ranging from a lack of financial aid to inadequate student services and poor developmental classes, can impede students’ progress. Many students stop attending school before receiving a postsecondary credential: One study found that only 39 percent of students who entered community college with the goal of earning a degree or certificate had met their goal six years later. College administrators, policymakers, and researchers are searching for effective strategies to help students stay in school and succeed.

In Opening Doors, MDRC worked with community colleges in several states to design and implement new types of financial aid, enhanced student services, and curricular and instructional innovations, with the goal of helping low-income students earn college credentials as the pathway to better jobs and further education. Integral to the demonstration project are four random assignment studies, each measuring how the Opening Doors interventions affect students’ education and personal outcomes.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The Opening Doors demonstration grew out of previous efforts to learn about the factors that affect low-income students’ college enrollment and completion. It seeks to address two pressing problems: high rates of attrition among low-income community college students and a dearth of reliable evidence about which strategies are effective in improving student retention and longer-term academic success. During the project’s reconnaissance phase, focus groups with past, current, and potential students uncovered three major themes: a need for financial support; the importance of support services to supplement coursework; and a lack of time to work, raise children, and attend college simultaneously.

Building on these findings, Opening Doors sites tested various combinations of innovations in three areas:

  • Curricular and instructional innovations, including learning communities where students take blocks of classes with the same group of peers, customized instructional support, integrated developmental and academic content courses, directed tutoring and courses for students on academic probation, and enhanced orientation courses to help students navigate through the college experience.
  • Supplementary financial aid for direct costs (such as tuition, books, supplies, transportation, and child care) or offsetting indirect or opportunity costs (reduced earnings resulting from fewer work hours) of college attendance. Since state policies on financial aid and community college tuition and fees vary enormously, the financial aid intervention is tailored to each site’s circumstances.
  • Enhanced student services encompassing stronger academic advisement, personal counseling, career counseling, peer support, and tutoring.

The first phase of the project’s evaluation component, which ran from 2003 through 2009, examined the following areas for each intervention:

  • Implementation. What services were provided, how were they delivered, who received them, what were the participation rates, what problems were encountered, and how were problems addressed?
  • Short-term impacts. To what extent did Opening Doors programs improve short-term effects on education, health, civic engagement, and personal development outcomes? Education outcomes examined include semester-to-semester persistence, credits earned, and academic performance.

The second phase of the evaluation is currently under way and is examining the long-term education impacts and costs of two Opening Doors programs: learning communities at Kingsborough Community College and a program for probationary students at Chaffey College.

  • Long-term impacts. To what extent did Opening Doors improve long-term effects on education, including persistence in college, degree receipt, and transfer to four-year institutions? Did the program affect earnings and employment outcomes?
  • Cost. How much did the program cost? What is the cost-effectiveness of the program, given its impacts on participants?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The demonstration includes six community colleges in four states:

  • Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California
  • Delgado Community College and Louisiana Technical College–West Jefferson in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area
  • Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York
  • Lorain County Community College near Cleveland, Ohio
  • Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio

The evaluation uses a random assignment research design in which the experiences of students who receive the Opening Doors interventions are compared with those of students who receive existing services.