How can community partners provide academic supports that improve underserved student retention and completion rates?

February 2016

Strong support systems are necessary to help students complete their postsecondary programs, and these supports must come from both inside and outside the classroom. As communities work together to ensure that all students succeed in college, they must prioritize creating a completion culture with a sense of shared responsibility among different community stakeholders and they must target supports to underserved student populations to eliminate equity gaps in student retention and success.

Academic supports, such as advising and tutoring, can help students remediate needs and ensure that they will succeed in subsequent coursework instead of stopping out. Career supports, such as career counseling, mentoring, and work experience, can help articulate how coursework translates into high-quality employment after graduation. Personal supports, such as learning communities and comprehensive first-year experiences, can ensure that underserved students feel a sense of belonging as they adjust to an unfamiliar campus culture. And financial supports should not be limited to financial aid counseling but include supports for housing, transportation, legal services, and other holistic needs that realistically determine how affordable college is for low-income students.

But cross-sector partnerships that aim to improve rates of persistence and completion, particularly among underserved students, can be difficult to manage and maintain unless communities have clear guidance, objectives, and strategies. Community partners must work together to assess what kinds of programming and initiatives work best for the various student populations within their communities. In an effort to support community-based collaborations on postsecondary student success—education, business, policy, and nonprofit and community organizations—the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has developed this tactical guidebook with support from Lumina Foundation. The guidebook explains how some communities within the Community Partnership for Attainment (CPA) network use cross-sector partnerships effectively to improve student outcomes.

We hope you will use this guidebook to learn more about different practices and tools communities are using to improve academic system alignment and support college readiness for all students, and to learn how you can adopt these practices and tools in your own communities. Our guidebook’s opening infographic outlines different types of supports that community actors can provide to students to help them along their path to completion. Each subsequent chapter takes a deep dive into these distinct academic and nonacademic supports and includes interviews* with community leaders about their community partnership strategies and practices; tactical tools (such as online coaching platforms, sample strategic plans, pathway design recommendations, first-year experience seminar workbooks, and career supports brochures) that could help your community adopt these practices; and additional resources that provide more information for you to examine at your leisure. Finally, we introduce Beyond Financial Aid, a guidebook produced by Lumina Foundation that addresses college affordability and features an institutional self-assessment that can help campuses assess existing efforts and identify strategies to build their capacity to strengthen students’ nancial stability.

* Please note that all interviews are summaries of conversations and not verbatim records.


Efforts to widen postsecondary participation in urban communities necessarily start well before senior year. It takes a village—or a city—pulling together to raise and sustain student aspirations for college. Robust partnerships involving colleges and universities, school districts, government, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and businesses can be important catalysts for change.

Moving the needle on postsecondary completion requires intervention at every stage of the college process. School districts, colleges, and nonprofits can partner early on to ensure students prepare for the application process and are familiar with placement tests. Nonprofit organizations can invest in providing students with coaching and support before, during, and after the college search. Students benefit when this coaching continues into college in support of a successful transition to campus life. The business community can play a part by helping students find their way to internship opportunities during college and to employment after graduation. Below are a few examples of intervention strategies that campus–community partnerships can use to support student college readiness, persistence, completion, and, ultimately, the transition into the world of work.

College Readiness Programs: Does your community want to invest in programs and events that help prepare students for the application process, placement tests, and college-level work? These programs can familiarize students with postsecondary options, help them apply, and reinforce the norms of a college- going culture. Local colleges and universities as well as nonprofit organizations with a focus on college access can be important partners for school districts at this stage.

Navigational Coaching: Does your community want to provide students with one-on-one coaching and support as they navigate the college-to-career pathway? Nonprofit organizations can partner with school districts and other community organizations to provide coaching aimed at college-bound students. Navigational coaches can partner with host institutions to connect students with resources, help them with career exploration, and help them stay on track to graduate. Employers can invest in career coaching programs that help students develop resumes, prepare for interviews, and secure interviews and job-shadowing opportunities. Nonprofits with roots in the community can often provide holistic support for students from underserved populations.

Learn While You Earn: Does your community want to identify and develop opportunities for students to work in paid internship positions while earning college credit? Credit-bearing internships allow students to explore a potential career path and continue progress toward graduation while earning money to support themselves. With paid internships, work doesn’t distract students from focusing on their academics; rather, it can help sharpen and refine that focus.

This chapter features an interview with the vice provost for academic support services and undergraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She explains how the Success Boston partnership came together in response to a low postsecondary completion rate for Boston Public Schools (BPS) graduates. This chapter also includes several resources that this partnership used to organize its work, set goals, and deploy resources. These resources include a set of plans drawn up by the coalition and by individual campuses to positively affect completion by BPS students and an annotated bibliography on widening participation by underserved students.

This chapter ends with a list of additional resources you can use to find more information about designing programming to promote first-year student success.

Success Boston, Boston, Massachusetts: Widening College Participation Among Boston Public Schools Students

  • Dr. Joan Becker, Vice Provost for Academic Support Services and Undergraduate Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston; Strategy Group Member, Success Boston

IHEP spoke with Dr. Joan Becker from the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB) to learn about the coalition of higher education institutions, community organizations, and foundations that built the Success Boston initiative. Becker describes how this initiative developed, outlines its four primary components, and provides evidence for the program’s effectiveness in improving the completion rate for Boston Public Schools (BPS) students. The interview provides an example of synergy between higher education, government, foundation, and nonprofit partners, and describes an intervention strategy that is making significant inroads in improving outcomes for urban high school students.


IHEP: What is the Success Boston partnership, and how and why did it develop?

Success Boston is a citywide college completion initiative. The Boston Foundation, BPS, the City of Boston, nearly 40 colleges and universities, and several nonprofit organizations are working together to double the college completion rate for BPS students.

We have a long and deep history in Boston of collaboration between the higher education sector, the business community, and the K-12 system, beginning with the Boston Compact, which was in signed in 1982. In place for over 20 years, the Compact first took shape during the desegregation era. During that time, many local colleges stepped up to the plate to work with the K-12 system, not only to ease the transition related to desegregation, but also to help improve the outcomes for BPS students. We had formal agreements in which BPS committed to improve students’ preparation, the colleges agreed to admit more BPS students and put more scholarship money on the table, and the business committee committed to hiring more BPS students. All along, our focus was on graduating more kids from high school, getting more kids enrolled in college, and getting more students hired into jobs.

In 2009, Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies released a report that said we’re doing a fabulous job of getting students into college, but they’re not completing. This was no surprise to me, nor to others who had been doing college access work. It’s great to get students into college, but if they don’t finish, what have we really done? Tom Menino— Boston’s mayor at the time—cared deeply about education and wanted to do something to improve retention. He held a press conference at which the Success Boston initiative was launched, with a commitment of $5 million over five years from the Boston Foundation.

Success Boston has four components—Getting Ready is led by BPS and involves improving student readiness for college. A network of nonprofits led by the Boston Foundation support students through and after the college application process in the Getting In stage. UMB is lead on the Getting Through stage,

in which 37 local higher education institutions committed to implementing strategies aimed at increasing the completion rates of BPS students on their campuses and have expanded campus-based supports for students. In addition, the colleges that enroll large numbers of BPS students partner with nonprofit organizations to provide students with coaches to help them thrive and graduate. The newest component is Getting Connected, led by the Private Industry Council (PIC), which looks at the question of employment after graduation.

IHEP: Besides the Northeastern report, did you find any other research useful in developing the Success Boston strategies?

We were already looking at our own retention rates as a campus around the time Success Boston launched. A report published by the Education Trust called Advancing by Degrees was very important for us at UMB. It described a framework for thinking about what we came to call “on-track indicators”—accumulating at least 30 credit hours a year, maintaining a certain grade point average, taking first-year courses in the first year, and completing math requirements early—the benchmarks that must be completed to get a degree. The report found that students who successfully complete these benchmarks when they’re meant to be completed are much more likely to finish on time. We developed a whole on-track framework and launched a messaging campaign to students: “Start on Track, Stay on Track.”

This also influenced development of the Success Boston strategies when we came to the table. Rather than only ensuring that students persisted, stakeholders focused instead on identifying the key, campus-specific benchmarks that students need to complete, and when they need to complete them.

IHEP: Has the partnership focused on specific student populations?

The initial report by Northeastern found a persistent achievement gap with regard to BPS students of color and white students. Specifically, college graduation rates for black (28.2%) and Hispanic (23.9%) BPS students are substantially lower than those for white (53.3%) and Asian (52%) BPS students. This population is a high priority for us, and through Success Boston we’ve started to move the needle. Black and Hispanic BPS students who worked with a Success Boston coach showed gains in one-year persistence rates of 17% to 22% over peers who didn’t participate.

Given how effective the coaching intervention is, we’ve started to focus on the gaps and how we can make sure we’re connecting all of our BPS students with a coach. Early in the initiative we were able to garner institutional funding that enabled us to hire our own navigational coach. As a result, since 2010, we have been able to provide all incoming first-time students with a coach. Approximately 50% of UMB students are transfer students, so we’re developing coaching support for BPS students who start elsewhere and transfer here. Many BPS students start at community colleges and then go on to four-year institutions, and that transition can sometimes be less than successful.

At UMB, our work with Success Boston occurs in conjunction with several other initiatives that target specific student populations. We have the Federal TRIO Student Support Services Program and a Federal Asian American, Native American, Pacific Islander Serving Institution Grant. We also have an ongoing partnership with the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, which is working with us to provide opportunities for underrepresented minority students with an interest in biomedical careers to get involved in research projects involving cancer health disparities.


IHEP: How did UMB work with Success Boston partners to develop its intervention strategies?

This was an area of challenge at first. We needed to find the best way for nonprofits to support, extend, and expand the work that campuses were doing to support students. If you look at the literature on retention, making connections to people on campus is crucial, particularly for low-income, first-generation students. We wanted to ensure that our nonprofit partners were “flying in formation” with us—that they were well connected to people and programs on our campus, that they understood how we were organized, and that we had an ongoing opportunity to provide guidance and insight. Further, nonprofits could have found themselves supporting students and hiring coaches to work on campuses all over the region. That didn’t seem to be an efficient use of resources. Instead, we made a critical decision to concentrate these nonprofit resources at specific campuses rather than have all nonprofits working everywhere. Further, I assigned someone in our Advising Center to be a single point of contact for nonprofits working on our campus. I wanted to make it easy for us to quickly problem-solve and troubleshoot what issues needed to go where.

With additional funding from the Boston Foundation, I convened a committee and invited representatives from colleges and universities across greater Boston to participate. We made use of a team of consultants to help each campus develop a strategy to improve persistence to graduation specifically for BPS students. Each campus identified specific goals, new or repurposed funds to support those goals, and what more they could do with additional funding. We also held annual meetings with all of the campuses to provide updates and share best practices. Occasionally our nonprofit partners or BPS participated as well. These meetings were really useful in strengthening our partnership. Remember that Boston is perhaps the most competitive higher education market in the world. Even though we compete with one another for students, we were able to park our self-interests at the door. Those meetings were about the success of Boston kids, and we kept our focus on how we collectively and individually could do that.

IHEP: What challenges did you first encounter when developing the Success Boston partnership?

Boston is perhaps the most competitive higher education market in the world. Even though we compete with one another for students, we were able to park our self-interests at the door. Those meetings were about the success of Boston kids, and we kept our focus on how we collectively and individually could do that.

One challenge we encountered early on involved the extent to which campus-level data are publicly shared. In the run-up to the release of the Northeastern report, each campus had been given its institutional data. We understood that these data were for our own purposes and would not be made public. In its study, the Center for Labor Market Studies reported the data in the aggregate. Later on, the Center released individual college data in response to repeated queries from the Boston Globe. The campuses weren’t trying to hide behind bad outcomes. Rather, we worried that the Globe wouldn’t provide the appropriate context for the information. Further, we’re enrollment driven. Publishing a story at a crucial time in the enrollment cycle can really hurt our ability to do the things we’re trying to do to improve. I’m not reluctant to share data. I share data about UMB all the time. But context is important. Data are the data, but the story you tell about the data is a different matter. This continues to be a point of tension for our coalition. I think people would be more than willing to sign a data-sharing agreement if we had language in the agreement that obliged us to reach consensus as to the story we’re going to tell.


IHEP: Can you describe the four stages of the Success Boston initiative and how coalition partners led at each stage?

Getting Ready

As I’ve mentioned, BPS led the Getting Ready stage, but other partners played key roles in helping prepare students for the application process. The Boston Foundation funded a full-time staff position to help BPS organize and deliver college and career readiness programs. BPS also worked to help familiarize more students with the placement tests that colleges are using. UMB faculty worked with their counterparts at Bunker Hill to codevelop a course with teachers in one high school. We’re in the process of rolling it out to other schools in the district. We also took advantage of a BPS-sponsored program for parents called Parent University to deliver presentations on Success Boston to BPS parents. Obviously it’s critical for student success to help get parents on board as partners in this process.

As I mentioned earlier, Success Boston benefits from longstanding partnerships between the higher education sector, the business community, and BPS around improving outcomes, but these pre-existing partnerships can also pose a challenge. Any individual school in Boston may have multiple partners representing the business community, community-based organizations, and higher education partners, and it can be challenging to harness all that energy in service of a common agenda.

Getting In

We’re fortunate to have many nonprofit organizations in greater Boston that focus on college access and widening participation. They were in the lead with this stage of Success Boston. Several of them received funding from the Boston Foundation to provide what we’ve come to call navigational coaching. They ideally start working with students in high school—if not from the beginning, then by senior year—and continue to provide support over the summer and into the first two years of postsecondary schooling.

The nonprofits provide really good navigational coaching. Their job is to teach the students how to navigate higher education—just like the old adage of teaching someone how to fish. These coaches are grounded in the community and thus have access to supports and resources that can address non-school-related problems students encounter.

Getting Through

The Boston Foundation made a strategic decision early on to concentrate coaching resources at the colleges and universities that enroll the largest number of BPS students: UMB; the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology; and Bunker Hill, Massachusetts Bay, and Roxbury Community Colleges. Someone on my staff manages the coaches deployed to my institution. She’s very clear with them about their role. They aren’t meant to be academic advisors or financial aid counselors. Their job is to ensure that students work with their advisors and that the relationship is productive. She also plans regular meetings and activities for the coaches.

Initially, some of the nonprofits really struggled to connect with students. They had the capacity to serve more students than those they were currently working with, but FERPA [the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] prevented us from simply assigning them a caseload. After the first year, they asked us to help them find more students. Eventually we found a solution. The University of Massachusetts has a category in its employment system for people who serve as unpaid contingent workers. For nonprofits with which we’ve had a longstanding relationship, we agreed to “hire” their coaches. The coaches sign an ethics agreement and receive an institutional e-mail account. In exchange, they agree to be supervised by the director of the Advising Center.

We were also able to get internal funding to hire more senior BPS students to serve as peer mentors. They help us get students to events on campus. And we got Admissions to code the incoming BPS students, so we can run lists and balance out caseloads. By the end of our second year, we were able to assign every single incoming BPS student to a coach.

The coaching is very important and very effective, but it’s also very expensive. Depending on the agency, coaches have caseloads of approximately 75 to 100 students. If the staff in my Advising Center had caseloads that low, we wouldn’t need coaches. We don’t have a lot of places in the institution where we have that kind of capacity. I worry about this tremendously, because it’s not clear how we—both the campuses and the nonprofits—are going to sustain this program over the long haul.

Getting Connected

The PIC is leading this next phase of Success Boston, which focuses on work-based learning and career connections. The PIC, the city’s Workforce Development Board, already plays a significant role by connecting Boston high school students to jobs and internships. The PIC is extending its school-to-career strategy to include jobs and internships for community college students and eventually increased hiring upon graduation.

In January 2015, the PIC hired a postsecondary employment specialist through a one-year grant secured by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development from the U.S. Department of Labor. The PIC has committed to maintaining this position as the grant expires in early 2016. The postsecondary employment specialist currently works with two Bunker Hill Community College career navigators to provide enhanced career advice and employment support to 125 BPS graduates attending Bunker Hill Community College. The PIC’s postsecondary employment specialist will continue to provide employment support to these students and will work with Success Coaches to support additional students in 2016.

These early efforts are teaching us what it means to extend our goal beyond college completion to getting graduates connected to the career opportunities that a postsecondary education makes possible.


IHEP: What outcomes indicate that Success Boston is improving the postsecondary completion rate for BPS students?

The 2009 Northeastern University report found that only 35% of BPS students who enrolled in college or university had earned a degree within seven years of graduating from high school. Success Boston’s goal was to increase the six-year postsecondary completion rate for the BPS Class of 2009 from 35% to 52% and to double that same rate for the Class of 2011 to 70%. A 2013 report published by the Boston Foundation found that the Class of 2005 had achieved a six-year college completion rate of 47.4%. I’ve looked at some preliminary data and I think we’re going to make our goal of 52% for the Class of 2009.

IHEP: So what’s next?

I think getting to the goal of 70% is going to be a lot harder. We’ve already picked most of the low-hanging fruit. I think we’ll still see increases in retention and graduation rates, but we’re going to level off unless we can start tackling some of the more thorny issues like affordability. We’re committed to doing our best to get there, but I do think it’s going to take some strategies that we’re not currently using. Going forward, we’ve identified several areas of focus that are critical for us to tackle if we’re to provide additional momentum for Success Boston.

First, affordability and degree completion will continue to be critical issues for us. I have a student I’ve been working with for a long time. She’s trying to graduate, and we’re at that point in the semester where she’s falling apart because she’s overwhelmed. She’s working 40 hours a week while taking classes and she’s exhausted. She can’t do both, so she’s going to have to either slow down at school or reduce her work schedule. It’s always a trade-off. Lots of people think it’s a good cost-saving strategy for students to start at a community college. But if you’re at a community college and you get stuck in developmental education and you blow through your Pell eligibility, then it actually isn’t affordable for you.

Second, creating opportunities for students to acquire the experience that gets them out of the trap of a job and onto a career path is a big nut that we have to crack. Bunker Hill has an initiative called Learn and Earn. It’s a relatively small program, but it’s a credit-bearing paid internship program that’s within particular fields. Students can find a paid internship related to their field of study and career goal while earning academic credit. It stops being an either/or, like I’ve got to go to work or I’ve got to go to class.

Third, we need more seamless pathways between K-12, community college, and four-year institutions—not just articulation agreements, but true integration. What you do at Bunker Hill in your first two years shouldn’t look very different from if you’d done those first two years at UMB. That way, when you arrive at UMB, you’re a true junior, not a student with 60 credits who still hasn’t attained junior status in your major.

Finally, we haven’t engaged policymakers and lawmakers in a strategic way about these issues. That’s become part of the discussion now, in terms of how we begin to think about that part of the equation. The buying power of the Massachusetts state scholarships has eroded significantly. Twenty-five years ago these scholarships covered 80% of tuition and fees at a public four-year college in Massachusetts; today they cover only 9%. Good public policy can also help incentivize things like credit-bearing paid internships, which can give students the financial freedom to figure out their career aspirations.

IHEP: Finally, what advice do you have for other communities hoping to learn from or reproduce what Success Boston has achieved?

You’ve got to be in it for the long haul. The work is not easy. I think it’s really important that people create safe spaces and are honest with each other, so that if one partner in the initiative is doing something that feels hurtful to another partner, they can speak up and talk about it. I think our students deserve and need us to be the best we can be. That means we can’t afford to make nice at the expense of making progress. It doesn’t mean that we don’t behave civilly and that we yell and scream at each other, but it does mean we sometimes have to have difficult conversations.

Chapter 1 Download


Getting Through: Higher Education’s Plan to Increase the College Completion Rates of Boston Public Schools Graduates

This report describes a regionwide strategic planning process in which participating campuses created plans to improve persistence and completion rates, along with estimates of funding needs. The report includes summaries of 25 campus plans as well as an annotated bibliography of college success studies.

Page length: 42

Beyond 12

This online platform provides college coaching and student data tracking analysis aimed at increasing the number of underserved students. The system improves the retention work of colleges and universities by sharing longitudinal data across K-12 and higher education and deriving data-driven insights that shape differentiated coaching plans.

Additional Resources

Effective College Access, Persistence, and Completion Programs, and Strategies for Underrepresented Student Populations: Opportunities for Scaling Up [2010: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy]

This 2010 study published by Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy reviews current research on the outcomes achieved by postsecondary persistence and completion programs targeting students from underrepresented populations, identifies and describes promising intervention strategies, and reviews current programs at postsecondary institutions in Indiana.

The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring [2011: Stanford University School of Education]

This study by two Stanford researchers investigated the effectiveness of individualized coaching provided to students at public, private, and for-profit postsecondary institutions. Coaching topics included goal setting, academic skill building, time management, and self-advocacy. The study found that involvement with a coach improved student persistence and was a more cost-effective retention strategy when compared with increased financial aid.