Research & Resources



Community College Research Center (CCRC) Articles
CCRC is the leading independent authority on two-year colleges in the United States. We conduct research on the issues affecting community colleges and work with colleges and states to improve student success and institutional performance.

  • Assessing Developmental Assessment in Community Colleges
    For many students entering community colleges, the first stop on campus is at an assessment center. More than half of these students will be placed into developmental education as a result of their scores on reading, writing, and mathematics entry assessments, yet there is little evidence that this improves student outcomes. 

    This paper examines alternative perspectives on the role of assessment and how it is best implemented, reviews the validity of the most common assessments, and discusses emerging directions in assessment policy and practice. It concludes with implications for policy and research.

    A version of this paper was published as an article in Community College Review, vol. 39 2011.
  • Facilitating Student Achievement Through Contextualization
    This paper is a literature review that explores the nature and effectiveness of contextualization as a way to improve outcomes for academically underprepared college students.

    Two forms of contextualization have been studied: “contextualized” and “integrated” instruction. Qualitative research on the contextualization of basic skills is more common than quantitative research with student outcome data. Furthermore, those quantitative studies that do exist have methodological flaws that limit conclusions. Further, only a small number of studies have been conducted on contextualization in the college context.

    Despite these problems, contextualization seems to be a promising direction for accelerating the progress of academically underprepared college students. The contextualized approach is grounded in a conceptual framework relating to the transfer of skill and student motivation; practitioners who use it observe positive results, and the available quantitative evidence indicates that it has the potential to increase achievement.

    A version of this paper was published as an article, "Facilitating Student Learning Through Contextualization: A Review of the Evidence," inCommunity College Review, July 2011. This paper was also published as a chapter in Teaching Developmental Reading (2nd ed.), edited by Sonya L. Armstrong, Norman A. Stahl, & Hunter R. Boylan.
  • Online Learning: Does It Help Low-Income and Underprepared Students?
    Online learning has generated enthusiasm for its potential to promote greater access to college by reducing the cost and time of commuting and by allowing students to study on a schedule that is optimal for them. 

    The enthusiasm surrounding these and other innovative, technology-based programs has led educators to ask whether online learning could be leveraged to increase the academic access, progression, and success of low-income and underprepared college students as well. However, this review of the postsecondary literature on online learning strongly suggests that online coursework--at least as currently and typically implemented--may hinder progression for low-income and underprepared students. 

    The paper explores why students might struggle in these courses, discusses current access barriers to online education, and offers suggestions on how public policy and institutional practice could be changed to allow online learning to better meet its potential in terms of improving both college access and student progression.
  • Redesigning Community Colleges for Completion: Lessons From Research on High-Performance Organizations
    After examining the research from within and outside of higher education on organizational performance, this paper identifies eight practices common among high-performance organizations: leadership, focus on the customer, functional alignment, process improvement, use of measurement, employee involvement and professional development, and external linkages. Evidence suggests that these organizational practices have the greatest impact on performance when implemented in concert with one another. The paper assesses the extent to which community colleges generally are following these practices and evaluates current reform efforts in light of models of organizational effectiveness that emerge from the research literature.

    In order to bring about improvements in organizational performance, community colleges will need to involve faculty and staff in reform efforts. This paper reviews research on strategies for engaging faculty and staff in organizational innovation and describes particular challenges community colleges face on this front. The concluding section recommends concrete steps community college leaders can take to redesign how they manage programs and services to increase rates of student completion on a scale needed to help meet national goals for college attainment.
  • The Shapeless River: Does a Lack of Structure Inhibit Students' Progress at Community Colleges?
    For many students at community colleges, finding a path to degree completion is the equivalent of navigating a shapeless river on a dark night—but very few studies have explicitly examined the role of structure in student persistence. This paper addresses the issue of student persistence by integrating previously disconnected evidence and drawing on ideas from behavioral economics and psychology. 

    Central to the paper is the structure hypothesis: that community college students will be more likely to persist and succeed in programs that are tightly and consciously structured, with relatively little room for individuals to unintentionally deviate from paths toward completion, and with limited bureaucratic obstacles for students to circumnavigate. 

    Evidence suggests that the lack of structure in many community colleges is likely to result in less-than-optimal decisions by students about whether and how to persist toward a credential. Though there is no silver-bullet intervention to address this problem, this paper highlights several promising approaches and suggests directions for future experimentation and research. 

    A brief of this paper, The Structure of Student Decision-Making at Community Colleges, is available for download.
  • Toward a New Understanding of Non-Academic Student Support: Four Mechanisms Encouraging Positive Student Outcomes in the Community College

    Despite their best efforts, community colleges continue to see low rates of student persistence and degree attainment, particularly among academically vulnerable students. While low persistence and degree attainment can be attributed in large part to students' academic readiness, non-academic issues also play a part. This paper examines programs and practices that work to address the non-academic needs of students. 

    A review of the literature on non-academic support yields evidence of four mechanisms by which such supports can improve student outcomes: (1) creating social relationships, (2) clarifying aspirations and enhancing commitment, (3) developing college know-how, and (4) addressing conflicting demands of work, family and college. Identifying these mechanisms allows for a deeper understanding of promising interventions and the conditions that may lead students to become integrated into college life. 

    Each of these mechanisms can occur within a variety of programs, structures, or even informal interactions. The paper concludes by discussing implications for community colleges. 

    A brief of this paper, How Non-Academic Supports Work: Four Mechanisms for Improving Student Outcomes, is available for download.

Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) at the University of Texas - Austin