Provides insight from the five year Completion by Design initiative in order to provide a framework for thinking about system change for higher education leaders, funders and policymakers.

“Completion by Design (CBD) is a five-year initiative that works with nine community colleges in three states to significantly increase completion and graduation rates for low-income students. The goal of CBD is to substantially increase completion rates for these students, while holding down costs and maintaining access and quality” (p.2).

“This brief aims to provide college and higher education system leaders, as well as concerned funders and policymakers, with a framework for thinking about systemic change. It also provides insights from the CBD experience that can help others considering similar initiatives to develop implementation plans that are sufficiently broad and appropriately staffed, structured, and resourced. The brief first explains how systemic change is different from other, more incremental changes that colleges often implement and why systemic change is difficult but necessary. It then draws lessons from the experiences of CBD case study colleges during the first two years of implementation” (p.2-3).

“CBD is not a specific set of reforms that colleges are expected to implement. Rather, the Foundation allowed each group of colleges within a state to determine the set of reforms that would best address the needs of their specific students. To guide the colleges’ design process, the Foundation established a set of eight design strategies to best maximize students’ chances of receiving a certificate or degree. The principles are:

  1. Accelerate entry into coherent programs of study. 
  2. Minimize the time required to get college-ready.
  3. Ensure that students know the requirements to succeed.
  4. Customize and contextualize instruction.
  5. Integrate student supports with instruction.
  6. Continually monitor student progress and proactively provide feedback.
  7. Reward behaviors that contribute to completion.
  8. Leverage technology to improve learning and program delivery.

Colleges in the initiative received planning grants to collect and examine data at their institutions to identify areas where students fail to succeed and design strategies to address them. Colleges began implementing plans in academic year 2012-2013” (p.2).

(Abstractor: Author)

Major Findings & Recommendations

“Broad Lessons for Colleges Considering Systemic Change The research MDRC conducted on CBD provides leaders engaged in or considering systemic change with the following lessons: Reform takes time. Systemic change initiatives are generally put in place because stakeholders believe that implementing multiple reforms will have synergistic effects. But for the reasons discussed earlier, it takes time to implement all the reforms at the level needed to effect meaningful change in student outcomes. Gauging effectiveness takes time. Because multiple reforms need to be operating at the same time and synergistically to create an impact large enough to be observed institution-wide, it is unlikely that institution-wide student outcomes will change early on” (p.11). “Expect differences across institutions. This and other research suggests that a multicollege systemic change initiative, such as CBD, will likely not look the same across colleges. Indeed, even when colleges identify the same area as problematic, such as developmental education, they are likely to address the problem in different ways. Manage lofty expectations. Colleges should do all they can to help students reach their educational goals. While not discussed in this brief, the study’s qualitative interviews with students indicate, however, that many factors outside the control of community colleges play large roles in completion. Completion rates at community colleges will therefore never reach 100 percent” (p.12). (Abstractor: Author)