Tested Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes and Increasing ROI

November 7, 2017

By Ann Coles, Senior Fellow, uAspire

More than 50 percent of students served by NCAN members finish college within six years of enrolling, compared to 31 percent of similar students nationally[i]. While some would say that’s pretty impressive, NCAN members know it’s not good enough. We want all students who start college to earn a degree!

So, what can NCAN members and others do to increase college completion rates? Recent studies of member organizations identified three practices that appear to positively impact degree attainment: data-driven decision-making, a continuum of services from high school through college completion, and strong partnerships with higher education institutions.

Data-driven decision-making

Using data to inform decisions pays off at both the student and programmatic levels. Tracking academic performance allows staff to identify students with problems and intervene to keep them on track, avoiding pitfalls such as not meeting degree requirements. Data can also help staff determine whether specific program elements are achieving the desired outcomes and change, and discontinue those that don’t. If having 8th graders spend a week on campus fails to increase 9th-grade enrollment in college preparatory courses, for example, a program might choose to redirect its resources to activities proven to positively affect student outcomes.

Data are essential for accountability. Organizations can check whether advisors are meeting their performance objectives and help them improve. Data also can help a board of directors determine if the executive director is achieving the organization’s goals and assist funders with deciding where to invest for the greatest return.

Implementing data-driven decision-making requires spending time to find a tracking system that meets organizational needs and makes it relatively easy for staff to input data and generate reports. Organizations also need someone to manage the system, train staff, and troubleshoot problems. While data-tracking systems involve significant investment, their payoff is great in terms of improved productivity, increased degree completion rates, and spurring successful fund-raising.

A continuum of services

A continuum of services from high school through college increases students’ prospects of earning a degree. The transition from high school through the early college years is fraught with challenges for first-generation students whose parents lack the information and experience to guide them. Students must complete a number of confusing tasks before they can matriculate – everything from securing a loan and paying their college bill to selecting first-semester courses and arranging affordable housing. Assistance with completing these tasks increases the enrollment of low-income students by 8-12 percentage points[ii].

Low-income students who receive navigational coaching during their freshman year are more likely to return for their second year than students overall[iii]. Coaches help students deal with social and emotional problems that interfere with their studies, connect them with campus support services, and teach them to be effective self-advocates. Such support results in higher rates of college persistence compared with low-income students generally[iv].

Support through college completion also pays off financially for students by increasing their likelihood of graduating and reducing time-to-degree. Most low-income students borrow for college based on their belief in higher education as a way to escape poverty. Students who leave college before graduating or take more than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, however, face severe financial challenges. Because college dropouts have not earned a credential to qualify for a job that commands higher wages, they are likely to default on their education loans, resulting in a negative credit rating and limiting their ability to buy a car or resume their education. Students who take longer to complete a degree incur greater debt that could hamper them financially.

College access organizations realize the return on the financial investment they make in preparing students for college when students earn a degree. Consequently, it is in organizations’ self-interest to do as much as possible to support students throughout their college experience. Ultimately, what an organization spends on pre-college programming will be considered an effective use of resources only when the students served complete college.

Higher education partnerships

Strong higher education partnerships offer students considerable support above and beyond what college access organizations can provide. One of the most valuable resources is a staff person designated as a “campus angel” who can connect students with support services, advocate for them on campus, and inform partner organizations when they are in trouble. Many institutions are willing to make exceptions for students when they know a partner organization is supporting them. Other examples of the benefits students derive from partnerships between organizations and higher education institutions include being able to register early for classes and having a faculty or staff member assigned as a mentor.

In addition, some higher education institutions earmark institutional scholarships and grants for students from partner organizations. Strong partnerships also can result in students receiving better aid packages because institutions know that the assistance students receive from the college access organization increases their chances of getting a degree.

Want to learn more?

For more on these practices and others, consult NCAN's synthesis of lessons learned from four case studies of Benchmarking Project participants as well as individual case studies on Act SixBottom LineI Know I Can, and Philadelphia Futures.


[i] National College Access Network.  2016.  Closing the College Graduation Gap:  2016 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report.  Washington, DC:  National College Access Network.

[ii] Castleman, Benajmin & Page, Lindsey.  2014.  Summer Melt:  Supporting Low-Income Students through the Transition to College.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.

[iii] Linkow, Tamara et al.  2017.  The Power of Coaching:  Highlights from the Interim Report on the Impact of Success Boston’s Transition Coaching on College Success.  Cambridge, MA:  Abt Associates.

[iv] Calahan, Margaret & Perna Laura. 2015. Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 45 Years Trend Report. Washington, DC: Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

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