Tools for Postsecondary Schools Toolkit

Putting Evidence to Work for Student Support

This interactive toolkit is designed for student success, student affairs, and advising staff members and administrators at two-year and four-year colleges who are interested in using evidence-based practices to support students. The evidence, resources, and tools in this guide are designed to help practitioners develop or expand a student support or student success program at any stage in the program-development process.1 While the guide is not meant to be exhaustive, it aims to provide information and tools that can be readily put into action to support current initiatives and to help users plan for the broader implementation of comprehensive programs. It provides practical guidance and resources in four areas:

  • Comprehensive student supports
  • Data management for student success
  • Behavioral science insights and human-centered design
  • Return on investment
Using the Toolkit

The first three sections of this guide—Comprehensive Student Supports, Data Management for Student Success, and Behavioral Science Insights and Human-Centered Design—have short, informational videos to introduce these topics and the evidence base for these approaches.

TIP: When you enter a section, begin by watching the video or videos. The tools and resources in the sections assume you have viewed the videos and will build on the information presented in them.

The fourth section, Return on Investment, features MDRC’s ROI Tool, a free, interactive web application that allows community college administrators to estimate the costs and revenues associated with implementing an intervention at their college based on customized regional prices, college expenditures, tuition prices, and state funding models.

Each section also includes links to relevant MDRC project pages that can provide more details about the tools and resources provided in this toolkit. These project pages have a wealth of information, including published reports, briefs, and other resources developed by their project teams.

Comprehensive Student Supports

Over the past two decades, researchers have compiled a strong and clear body of evidence about what works to help students succeed in college. The strongest evidence has been associated with interventions that contain multiple components, known collectively as comprehensive student supports: high-impact coaching, financial incentives for maintaining enrollment and keeping academic momentum, and data management. The tools and evidence in this section touch on the major components of comprehensive student supports, share strategies for implementation, and help you think about how to apply this information to your context.


This section introduces comprehensive student supports in one video, then covers two of its three components in three videos on High-Impact Coaching, Academic Momentum, and Financial Incentives. Each of these components can be offered individually at an institution. However, the magic happens when they are offered together in an integrated structure.


How to Encourage College Summer Enrollment: Final Lessons from the EASE Project

This report offers lessons from MDRC’s Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) project, a randomized controlled study that explored the use of insights from behavioral science and financial incentives to encourage summer enrollment.

The EASE Handbook for Community Colleges: Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment

This guide for college administrators and staff members offers direction on how to implement two behavioral science interventions that stemmed from the EASE Project.

Designing for Success: The Early Implementation of College Promise Programs

This brief offers lessons learned during the planning and early implementation of MDRC's College Promise Success Initiative, which added additional support services to scholarship programs that covered all of a student’s tuition and fees.

Improving College Graduation Rates with Multifaceted Student Support Programs: Here’s What Institutions and State Agencies Need to Know

This brief describes evidence-based, comprehensive student support programs that implement the components of high-impact coaching. It also includes a summary of the rationale underlying these programs, evidence from existing studies, and state and institutional factors necessary for successful implementation, and offers advice on how to balance fidelity to a program model with local needs.

Increasing Community College Graduation Rates; A Synthesis of Findings on the ASAP Model from Six Colleges Across Two States

This paper provides estimates of the effects of the City University of New York Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (CUNY ASAP) model, evaluated in New York and Ohio. It includes longer-term effects of CUNY ASAP in New York and an analysis of pooled study samples from both states.

Implementing Evidence-Based Programs to Support College Success

This brief provides an overview of the Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS) project, an evaluation of a student support program that offers personalized advising and financial incentives and emphasizes data in program management.

Motor City Momentum: Three Years of the Detroit Promise Path Program for Community College Students

This report describes findings from an evaluation of the Detroit Promise Path, an evidence-based support services program for Detroit high school students entering community college.

Designing Scholarships to Improve College Success: Final Report on the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration

This report presents final results from the Performance-Based Scholarship Demonstration, a randomized controlled evaluation of programs that offered students additional financial aid contingent upon their meeting prespecified academic benchmarks.


High-Impact Coaching Checklist

Use this checklist to review the three main components of high-impact coaching—holistic advising, caseload structure and meeting frequency, and active outreach—and learn more about how to implement these components on your campus.

Guiding Questions for Reflection and Implementation

As you think about implementing or refining your evidence-based coaching model, these questions can help you determine your next steps and plan for implementation.

Sample Coaching Topics Calendar

This coaching calendar has sample topics for discussion as coaches plan to start their work with students in the upcoming semester.

Encouraging Academic Momentum and Providing Incentives for Engagement

Use this resource to review best practices for encouraging and providing incentives for engagement in services and full-time and continuous enrollment.

EASE Summer School Toolkit and EASE Handbook for Community Colleges

The EASE Summer School Toolkit and The EASE Handbook for Community Colleges are great resources to use as you communicate with students about their summer enrollment progress and goals.

Data Management for Student Success

In addition to evidence-based practices, a solid data-management plan is an important part of promoting student success. The tools and evidence in this section focus on assembling your data toolkit through data collection, maximizing the utility of your management information system, creating data-review routines that contribute to continual program improvement, and using data to communicate with various stakeholders.


When it comes to student data, you might already be looking at metrics such as credits earned in a given semester or the graduation rate for a certain entering class of students. There are plenty of other examples of data that can help you improve the success and engagement of your students. These videos will walk you through a few strategies to help you make the most of your data without getting intimidated or overwhelmed.


Designing an Enhanced Advising Program: Research-Based Advice for Community College Administrators

This blog post summarizes evidence on what features an advising program should have to improve academic outcomes.

Learning from Success: The Detroit Promise Path

This issue focus describes the components of Detroit Promise Path, an evidence-based student support services program for Detroit high school students entering community college. It also offers some early lessons from the program’s implementation.

Supporting College Students During the Pandemic: Early Lessons from SUCCESS

This brief describes the components of the original program model for Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS), a student support program that offers personalized advising and financial incentives and emphasizes data in program management. It discusses how colleges adapted those components in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and describes the design of an evaluation of the model and how the pandemic affected it too. It also presents some early implementation findings and preliminary impact findings from the study’s first semester, which occurred during the peak of the pandemic.

Providing Comprehensive Support Services to College Students: An Interview with SUCCESS Students and Coaches

In this podcast episode, Leigh Parise talks about SUCCESS with students and staff members from Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana.

Redesigning Advising with the Help of Technology: Early Experiences of Three Institutions

This report from the Community College Research Center and MDRC describes how three institutions were then approaching comprehensive, technology-based advising reforms, presenting detailed examples of their new advising practices, outreach methods, and messages to students.


Assembling Your Data Toolkit

Collecting and Using Data to Inform Student Support Services
Use this resource guide to review best practices for collecting and using data to inform student support services, and learn more about how to implement these components on your campus.

Creating Data-Review Routines

Reports that Provide Useful Data for Program Management
This sample data-management plan can help you think about what kinds of data to collect, which audiences to share those data with, and when to share them.

Sample List of Program Management Internal Data-Monitoring Reports

Sample Student-Level Program Engagement Tracker

Sample Benchmarking Template

Sample Monthly Program Data Report Template

Sample Semesterly Program Data Report Template

Once you develop a data-management routine, the reports on this list can be useful to pull and share on a regular basis. Here are sample templates for tracking student-level program engagement, monthly reports, and semesterly reports to help you get started!

Behavioral Science Insights and Human-Centered Design

Behavioral science sheds light on how and why people make decisions and behave in certain ways, while human-centered design places people at the center of the design process. In the educational context, these disciplines provide program managers and educators with an approach to problem-solving that can help them design solutions that are responsive to patterns of student behavior.


The SIMPLER framework describes a set of principles applied across the 15 tests in the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency project, which was the first major effort to apply insights from behavioral science to human services in the United States. SIMPLER was developed to summarize concepts from behavioral science that can help make campus communications more memorable and useful.


Need to Inform Students About Aid Adjustments and Emergency Grants? These Strategies Can Help

This blog post provides evidence-based ways to communicate with students about financial aid and additional funding opportunities.

Can We Boost College Summer Enrollment Using Behavioral Science?

This infographic details the framework for MDRC's Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) Project, a randomized controlled study that explored the use of insights from behavioral science and financial incentives to encourage summer enrollment.

A Matter of Degree: Using Behavioral Science to Identify Barriers to Credit Intensity and Satisfactory Academic Progress

This report describes using behavioral science to identify barriers to enrolling in more credits and maintaining the “satisfactory academic progress” that allows students to stay eligible for financial aid.

Finish Line: Graduation by Design

This infographic details how insights from behavioral science could boost graduation rates.

Getting Your Message Across with the Effective Communications Checklist

This checklist collects best practices for using behavioral science to improve communications.

Elevating the Voices of Program and Service Participants

This brief and infographic detail how MDRC's Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) incorporates participants’ perspectives.

The CABS Approach

This infographic details the CABS approach to problem-solving.

Show, Don’t Tell Part 1

This brief describes a CABS workshop on program design (part 1).

Show, Don’t Tell Part 2

This brief continues to describe a CABS workshop on program design (part 2).

Mapping the College Transfer Process: Barriers to Student Success and Opportunities for Improvement

This infographic outlines how “behavioral mapping” was used to identify factors that impede students in the process of transferring from community colleges to earn bachelor’s degrees.


The tools in this section were developed by MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) which specializes in using insights and techniques from behavioral science and human-centered design to improve program design and delivery. CABS has partnered with dozens of educational institutions to diagnose problems, design strategies to address them, and evaluate those strategies. Use these tools to understand your students better and design solutions to meet their needs.

Student-Centered Approach

This one-page document on taking a student-centered approach to program design provides tips on how to place students at the center of the design process.

Defining the Problem

This handout describes how to come up with a clear problem statement, which is a critical first step in designing effective solutions.

Know, Feel, Do

The Know, Feel, Do framework can help you identify and categorize barriers that are preventing students from taking action. Use the Know, Feel, Do document to learn about common issues in behavioral-science terms and solutions frequently used to address them.

Developing a Process Map for Higher Education

A process map is a visual tool that can help institutions and programs identify opportunities to improve the ways they support students. The Developing a Process Map for Higher Education handout will help you create your own process map and could be especially helpful to college programs looking to find new ways to examine their processes and identify opportunities for improvement.

Process Maps: Many Voices Help Make Change

This blog post uses a case study to provide a step-by-step overview of how process mapping can be used to improve programs.

SIMPLER for Higher Education

In addition to the SIMPLER video above, you can use the SIMPLER for Higher Education document to familiarize yourself with the seven concepts of SIMPLER and learn how to apply them to your work right away.

Return on Investment

As colleges plan to expand their student support programs, they need to understand the costs and potential revenues involved. MDRC’s ROI Tool is designed to help two-year college administrators and researchers estimate the costs of student support interventions (based on regional prices and college expenditures) and the revenues those interventions could generate (based on tuition prices and state funding models).

Explore the ROI Tool

Document Details

Publication Type
March 2023
Castleman-Smith, Jálynn, Elena Serna-Wallender, Alyssa Ratledge, Rebekah O'Donoghue, and Sumner Perera. 2023. “Tools for Postsecondary Schools Toolkit.” New York: MDRC.