Spotlight Exclusives

Strategies for Promoting College Completion in the Age of COVID-19

Alexander Mayer and Alyssa Ratledge, MDRC Alexander Mayer and Alyssa Ratledge, MDRC, posted on

COVID-19 threatens college completion for millions of students far beyond 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already exacerbated inequities in higher education. Educators fear that the pandemic and ensuing recession will make it impossible for many students to start, or to continue, their college education this fall.

No one knows yet how the college landscape will look this fall. Fortunately, however, we do have a lot of research evidence on “what works” in higher education that can illuminate better ways of supporting students, especially low-income students, during the pandemic and through to graduation day.

Even before COVID-19, college graduation rates were low. At two-year colleges, for instance, which disproportionately serve the nation’s low-income students, only 35 percent of first-time students graduate within three years. At four-year colleges only about 60 percent of bachelor’s degree seekers complete their degree within six years.

Costs are one important driver of low completion rates — and those costs go far beyond the tuition “sticker price.” Students must also pay for transportation, textbooks, housing, and food, which together can easily exceed tuition. Paying for college and covering these costs will now be even harder for millions of students and families who have lost jobs. But even when these costs are covered, many students still struggle.

In community colleges, as many as two-thirds of incoming students are identified as academically underprepared — numbers that could grow with the profound disruptions to secondary education caused by the pandemic. These students are required to take remedial courses that don’t count toward a degree. Most students referred to remedial courses never graduate.

And at most public colleges, student advising ratios are too high to provide students with the support they need when facing academic challenges, cumbersome or confusing college processes, unwelcoming environments, or personal difficulties outside of school. These challenges can be especially hard to navigate for first-generation college-goers, students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and adults starting or returning to college. Now more students than ever will be facing illness, bereavement, food and housing insecurity, and poverty while seeking a degree.

The good news is that we have evidence about what can help students. Higher education researchers, including MDRC, are proving the value of new strategies that help students identified as academically underprepared for college. In fact, just using better data, like adding new students’ high school GPA to a placement test score, can help many students skip remedial courses altogether and still succeed in college-level courses.

Other programs like proactive advising, instructional reforms, bonus financial support incentives, and behavioral messaging have all been shown to improve students’ academic progress. These strategies are helpful on their own, but when combined into a more comprehensive approach, they can be game changers. The most successful programs combine tuition coverage with additional financial supports, such as textbook or transportation vouchers, and support services that are designed to regularly engage students from matriculation through graduation.

You may have heard of some of these programs, such as CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) in New York City. CUNY ASAP has a remarkable effect, nearly doubling graduation rates for students in MDRC’s study. Three colleges in Ohio implemented their own ASAP programs and found similarly remarkable increases in graduation. Other programs across the country providing comprehensive, wraparound services, such as the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), are also proven to increase graduation rates.

These programs aren’t windfalls for students. They present both an opportunity and an obligation. To receive the benefits, students must commit to enrolling full time and to regular participation in student services like advising and tutoring. Other programs sharing similar features and goals are popping up all around the country. We are seeing the positive impacts of these programs, such as One Million Degrees, Inside Track, and a new program where MDRC is a lead partner, called SUCCESS.

COVID-19 will compound the challenges low-income students face when trying to complete their college degree. We must prepare our institutions to meet students’ needs by combining financial supports with evidence-based student support strategies. The challenge isn’t just about being able to afford to enroll this fall — it’s about college completion, too.

Alexander Mayer is director of MDRC’s postsecondary education policy area, where Alyssa Ratledge is a research associate.

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