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Young Adults and Higher Education: Barriers and Breakthroughs to Success

August 2010

Thomas Brock, MDRC

Download 'working_paper10-08.pdf'.


Although access to higher education has increased substantially over the past forty years, stu­dent success in college—as measured by persistence and degree attainment—has not improved at all. Thomas Brock reviews systematic research findings on the effectiveness of various inter­ventions designed to help at-risk students remain in college.

Brock shows how changes in federal policy and public attitudes since the mid-1960s have opened up higher education to women, minorities, and nontraditional students and also shifted the “center of gravity” in higher education away from traditional four-year colleges toward nonselective community colleges. Students at two-year colleges, however, are far less likely than those at four-year institutions to complete a degree. Brock argues that the nation’s higher education system must do much more to promote student success. Three areas, he says, are particularly ripe for reform: remedial education, student support services, and financial aid.

In each of these three areas, Brock reviews programs and interventions that community col­leges have undertaken in order to raise completion rates. Some colleges have, for example, experimented with remedial programs that build social cohesion between students and fac­ulty and integrate content across courses. Other colleges have tested student support service programs that offer counseling and advising that are regular, intensive, and personalized. Still others have experimented with ways to simplify the financial aid application process and incen­tivize students to earn good grades and persist in school.

Research shows that such programs and interventions can improve student outcomes, but Brock argues that more must be done to bring proven practices to scale and to test new ideas that might lead to better results. Institutions that most need help are those that provide the greatest access to nontraditional and underprepared students in community colleges and less selective universities.

Discrimination, Employment, Unemployment, and the Labor Market