Visher, M., & Teres, J. (2011). Breaking new ground: An impact study of career-focused learning communities at Kingsborough Community Colleges. New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research.
- The study’s objective was to examine the impact of career-focused learning communities at Kingsborough Community College in New York on progress toward and completing a degree. Students with eight declared majors could participate in a career-focused learning community, which involved enrolling in three linked courses during a semester: two required courses for the student’s major and an integrative seminar designed to reinforce the two required courses and raise awareness of career options.
- The study was a randomized controlled trial. Eligible students were randomly assigned to either the treatment group, which was offered the opportunity to participate in one of the learning communities, or the control group, which was not allowed to enroll in a learning community. The primary data sources were a baseline survey on background characteristics of students and student transcripts.
- The study found no significant impacts on registration in any course, number of semesters registered, credits earned or attempted, the proportion of students who passed or withdrew from all classes, grade point average (GPA), or graduation rate in either the semester of program implementation or the first post-program semester.
- The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects would be attributable to the learning communities, and not to other factors.
Career-Focused Learning Communities at Kingsborough Community College
Features of the Intervention
At Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, the career-focused learning communities program involved enrolling small cohorts of students in three linked courses during one semester. Two of the courses were required for a specific major, and the third was a seminar designed to reinforce the learning objectives of the other two courses and provide students practical information about careers in their selected majors. By having small groups of up to 25 students take classes together, the career-focused learning communities aimed to create social and academic networks for students, and to encourage engagement and persistence in school. The program took place in five different semesters, from fall 2007 to fall 2009. For the fall 2007, spring 2008, and fall 2008 semesters, the program was offered for five majors: allied health, accounting, business administration, childhood education, and mental health. Because of low enrollment in those five learning communities, the school expanded the program to two additional majors in the spring 2009 semester: liberal arts and tourism and hospitality, and added a learning community for criminal justice majors in fall 2009. Although the number of learning communities varied in any given semester due to student enrollment, in total, there were 32 career-focused learning communities across the eight majors and five semester cohorts. To be eligible for the career-focused learning communities, students had to have already fulfilled most of their developmental education requirements, be in at least their second semester of college, and have declared one of the majors included in the program.
Features of the Study
This study was a randomized controlled trial. Randomization occurred at the student level, separately for each semester cohort. Eligible students who provided consent to participate in the study filled out a baseline data form. Then, the students were randomized either to the treatment group, which was offered the opportunity to enroll in a learning community, or the control group, which could not enroll in a learning community, but could access existing college services. There were 917 students in the study, with 537 in the treatment group and 380 in the control group.
The authors used data from students’ transcripts and the baseline data form to report the mean outcomes for the two groups. The authors weighted the outcome means to account for a student’s cohort, different random assignment ratios within cohorts, and declared major at baseline. The authors reported outcomes for two time periods: the program semester and the first post-program semester.
The study found no significant impacts on registration in any course, the number of semesters registered, credits earned or attempted, the proportion of students who passed all classes or withdrew from all classes, GPA, or the graduation rate in either the semester of program implementation or the first post-program semester.
Considerations for Interpreting the Findings
The authors noted two concerns with implementation that might explain why the program had no impacts. First, the career-focused learning communities had small class sizes—averaging 15 students—which instructors felt made project-based learning and group discussion more challenging. Only 2 of the 32 learning communities in the study were actually enrolled at or above the targeted number of 25 students per learning community. Second, a sizable portion of the instructors in the career-focused learning community classes were new to the model. For example, 7 of the 18 instructors in spring 2008 were new to the learning communities program. The authors suggested that the career-focused learning community model can take up to two years to learn and master, so having these new teachers deliver the program could be a concern for implementation fidelity.
The authors also noted that the control group’s experience might not have differed greatly from that of the treatment group. First, many control students engaged in so-called de facto cohorting; because there were very few classes available in certain majors, students often took multiple classes with the same group of classmates. Even though this arrangement was not as formal as the linked courses within the learning community, control group students might have created networks of classmates that were similar to those of the treatment group. In addition, the authors noted that many control group members had the same instructors as the treatment group, although outside the learning communities linked courses. Some of these instructors reported using the same strategies to engage students and integrate content in all their courses, both inside and outside the learning communities. Finally, both treatment and control group members had access to quite extensive existing services at Kingsborough, and appeared to have used these services at comparable rates. Consequently, the authors argued that the experiences of treatment and control group members might have been quite similar, making large impacts of learning communities less likely.
Causal Evidence Rating
The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is high because it was based on a well-implemented randomized controlled trial. This means we are confident that the estimated effects would be attributable to the learning communities, and not to other factors.