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Community College Synthesis

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Review Process In Brief

This synthesis highlights key findings from studies identified through a CLEAR systematic evidence review that examined the impacts of community college-based interventions on education, earnings, and employment outcomes. CLEAR found 193 reports of 238 distinct studies published from January 1994 to October 2019. Of these studies, 67 received a high or moderate causal evidence rating which means that we have a good degree of confidence that the studied interventions caused the measured impacts on individuals’ education and labor market outcomes. This synthesis presents a summary of the evidence from these 67 high and moderate-rated studies.

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What do we know about the effectiveness of community college-based interventions?

Community colleges offer a variety of affordable programs that lead to educational attainment and further education and in some cases improved employment outcomes. Employment-focused community college programs, in particular, may provide students with industry-recognized certificates, credentials, and associate degrees that can lead to improved labor market outcomes. 

Table 1. Types of community college-based interventions examined



Linked learning community 

A program in which students are placed in cohort groups with shared curricular goals.

Accelerated learning

An approach that allows students to complete courses in a shorter period of time than a traditional semester. Sometimes referred to as “fast track” programs.

Paid performance incentive

A program that provides students with financial rewards for exhibiting behaviors associated with student achievement.

Transition programs and support services

An approach that prepares students for community college and beyond using a variety of activities and services such as: academic preparation; basic skills support in mathematics, reading, and writing; and student support services such as counseling, tutoring, time and resource management (e.g., financial aid), study skills, and child care services.

Career pathways

A series of structured and connected education and training programs that enable students to secure a job or advance in a high-demand industry or occupation with multiple entry and exit points.

Work-based learning A program in which community college classroom instruction is paired with workplace experience, allowing participants to gain or enhance their skills while employed or while engaged in an experience similar to employment.
Blended interventions funded by Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants TAACCCT was a federal capacity-building grant program designed to increase the ability of community colleges to provide education and training to adults for in-demand jobs by funding strategies such as industry-aligned curriculum, competency-based education, credit for prior learning, contextualized instruction, stacked and latticed credentials, educational technology, hands-on experiences, and student support services. Blended interventions funded by TAACCCT were implemented and evaluated by community colleges and/or consortia of community colleges and included a variety of services such as career pathways and work-based learning; however, they are analyzed separately here given the integral nature of their capacity-building feature.

Many community college-based interventions improved education outcomes but few improved earnings or employment outcomes.

The studies found that participation in community college-based interventions increased rates of course enrollment, course completion, and credit accumulation. Community college-based interventions also increased the rates of degree, credential, or certificate completion as well as transfers to a four-year institution. A smaller percentage of studies found higher quarterly earnings, larger wage gains, or higher employment rates among program participants.

Paid performance incentives improved education outcomes and show promise to increase earnings.

All studies of paid performance incentives found increased academic persistence, credit accumulation, or degree/certificate completion, providing a small body of credible, quality evidence of promising interventions to improve education outcomes. One study of year-round Pell (YRP) funding also found higher earnings among YRP recipients three years later. More evidence is needed to draw stronger conclusions of the effectiveness on earnings.

Accelerated learning interventions increased the rates of course enrollment and completion as well as the rates of degree/certificate completion.

The studies focused on accelerated learning interventions designed for individuals in developmental learning courses who traditionally have lower rates of academic persistence and degree completion.

Some studies showed that work-based learning interventions improved education and employment outcomes, but the evidence base is small.

One study found that workforce training paired with parental education increased program enrollment and certification rates, and also increased employment rates in the healthcare sector. Another study found increased likelihood of course enrollment, course completion, and credits earned. Two studies found that participation in work based learning increased long-term earnings but the authors did not provide tests of statistical significance.

Career pathways interventions had varying degrees of effectiveness across the outcomes.

These interventions had multiple studies that found improved education, earnings, or employment outcomes.

Evidence on the effectiveness of blended interventions funded by TAACCCT is mixed.

Variation in the results of these capacity building grants may be due to programmatic differences. Blended interventions funded by TAACCCT were comprised of different services in addition to work-based learning or career pathways, including academic supports (e.g., tutoring), employment supports (e.g., career counseling), technology (e.g., online learning), and developmental education (e.g., remedial courses).

Where are the gaps in the research on community college-based interventions?

  • More research, including longitudinal research, is required to determine the effect of community college-based interventions on labor market outcomes. Less than half of the studies examined the effect of community college-based interventions on earnings outcomes (26 studies) and employment outcomes (23 studies). The focus was primarily on education outcomes (62 studies), such as degree/credential completion and academic persistence. For studies that examined labor market outcomes, most were less than 24 months post-intervention.

  • More research is required to determine what combination of services or intervention components lead to improved education, earnings, and employment outcomes. The employment-focused interventions (career pathways, work-based learning, and blended interventions funded by TAACCCT) are quite varied and included multiple services in each study. For example, one TAACCCT grant included stacked and latticed credentials, improved instructional design, increased online learning offerings, coaching on industry recognized credentials, and the use of job development career coaches to integrate soft skills while another TAACCCT grant included career pathways with student support services.

  • Exploring the differences in outcomes across sites would illuminate the importance of implementation and context when evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. Several studies were implemented across multiple sites, but the research studies included combined findings only. Variation in the results may be due to the implementation of the intervention and the context and setting where the intervention took place.

  • More high-quality studies examining the impact of community college-based interventions are needed. Of the 238 studies found in this evidence review, 67 studies (less than one-third) received a high or moderate causal evidence rating. A low rating does not mean that the intervention was ineffective or had unfavorable outcomes. Low-rated studies often reflect the most rigorous methods authors could use given the circumstances. The remainder of studies found in this evidence base (the 171 low-rated studies), whose findings are not included in this synthesis, had several methodological limitations. For example, the selection of a comparison group in some studies produced a confounding factor where it was difficult to attribute the observed effects to the intervention studied and not to other factors. More rigorous, credible research would enable us to draw stronger conclusions about the effectiveness of community college-based interventions.