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Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on the persistence of low-income students (Engstrom & Tinto 2008)

Citation

Engstrom, C., & Tinto, V. (2008). Learning better together: The impact of learning communities on the persistence of low-income students. Opportunity Matters: A Journal of Research Informing Educational Opportunity Practice and Programs, 1(1), 5-21.

Highlights

    • The study’s objective was to examine the impact of learning communities on community college students’ persistence from freshman to sophomore year, an outcome in the progress toward degree completion domain.
    • The authors used a nonrandom approach to select treatment and comparison students to include in their analysis. To measure the relationship between participation in a learning community and persistence, the authors used survey and administrative data from 13 community colleges to estimate a logistic regression.
    • The study found that 62 percent of learning community students persisted from freshman to sophomore year, compared with 57 percent of comparison group students. This difference was statistically significant.
    • The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is low because the authors did not use sufficient controls in their analysis. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects are attributable to learning communities. Other factors are likely to have contributed.

Intervention Examined

Learning Communities

Features of the Intervention

The characteristics of the learning communities implemented at the colleges included in this study varied. The authors selected institutions at which at-risk students were well represented and that had learning communities meeting several criteria: the learning community programs were well established and had institutional evidence of effectiveness for academically underprepared students, they situated basic skill development within a broader academic context rather than simply linking several courses, and they captured variations in how learning communities were being adapted.

Features of the Study

The study used a nonexperimental design. The authors selected two groups of students at each participating college: a treatment group of students who participated in a learning community during their first year of college and a comparison group of students who did not. Comparison students were similar to learning community students in terms of attributes and academic preparation and were enrolled in courses that were similar in content to those that were part of the learning communities. To estimate the relationship between participation in a learning community and persistence, the authors estimated a logistic regression using the following control variables: highest education credential, mother’s education level, age, gender, English as native language, U.S. citizenship, ethnicity, and student engagement.

Study Sites

Thirteen two-year colleges in several states across the United States participated in the study:

  • Camden College Cerritos College
  • Community College of Baltimore County
  • DeAnza College
  • Grossmont College
  • Holyoke Community College
  • LaGuardia Community College
  • San Jose City College
  • Sandhills Community College
  • Santa Fe Community College
  • Seattle Central Community College
  • Shoreline Community College
  • Spokane Falls Community College

Findings

    • The study found that 62 percent of learning community students persisted from freshman to sophomore year, compared with 57 percent in the comparison group. This difference was statistically significant.

Considerations for Interpreting the Findings

The authors reported that students in the learning communities were more likely to come from minority backgrounds, to be younger, and to be female than comparison group students. In addition, the authors did not include controls for state. Because participating colleges were located in several states throughout the United States, it is important to control for state to account for differences in state-level educational policies, among other factors, that could influence persistence. Therefore, the study is not eligible for a moderate causal evidence rating, the highest rating available for nonexperimental designs.

Causal Evidence Rating

The quality of causal evidence presented in this report is low because the authors did not use sufficient controls in their analysis. This means we are not confident that the estimated effects are attributable to learning communities. Other factors are likely to have contributed.

Reviewed by CLEAR

November 2015

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