Student Support (Re)defined

Senior Researcher
Director of Research and Evaluation, Research and Planning Group


As California’s community colleges (CCCs) work to improve achievement using targeted student supports, many constituents—faculty, student services professionals, administrators, policymakers, and advocacy groups—are weighing in on how to preserve this essential function and redefine ways to effectively engage students with the assistance they need to succeed. To inform this dialog at both the institutional and system levels, the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group) is currently implementing “Student Support (Re)defined,” a multiyear study funded by The Kresge Foundation. This research aims to understand how community colleges can feasibly deliver support both inside and outside the classroom to improve success for all students.

What have we learned so far?

In Year 1 (2011 – 2012) of the project, the RP Group asked nearly 900 students from 13 California community colleges what supports their educational success, paying special attention to the factors African Americans and Latinos cite as important to their achievement. Five distinct themes emerge from these students’ responses. These key themes supply colleges with a framework for reflecting on the outcomes they want for their students. They also offer colleges a launch pad for identifying how support can be strategically integrated across institutional divisions and into students’ experience both inside and outside the classroom, from entry to exit. Finally, the themes imply the need for systemic change to institutional structures if colleges aim to connect more students with necessary support. The five key themes we identified are as follows:

  1. Colleges need to foster students’ motivation. While this research acknowledges students as key agents in their own educational success, it also highlights that the motivation learners bring to their college experience may not be enough to guarantee completion. Moreover, some students may arrive without this drive and need even more help developing their motivation. Study participants shared several ways colleges can help students find and maintain motivation that have implications at both the individual practitioner and college levels. Moreover, study findings additionally suggest that colleges may need to reflect on institutional policies, processes, and practices and interactions with students that may inadvertantly erode students’ motivation.
  2. Colleges must teach students how to succeed in the postsecondary environment. As educators, we often make assumptions that students arrive at our institutions with the tools, resources, and knowledge for success in and out of class. However, the findings from this study imply that colleges must show students how to translate their motivation into success. Students need assistance building the specific skills and knowledge necessary for navigating their community colleges and thriving in this environment, particularly those who are new to higher education or who arrive without a specific goal in mind. Colleges can help learners understand both why and how to choose a goal and stay focused, develop connections, engage both inside and outside the classroom, and make contributions on their campuses.
  3. Colleges need to structure support to ensure “six success factors" are addressed. Through a review of leading studies on effective support practices and interviews with practitioners and researchers, the RP Group determined that several factors contribute to students’ success. These “six success factors” are listed below in the order of importance according to students participating in our own study:
    • Directed: Students have a goal and know how to achieve it
    • Focused: Students stay on track—keeping their eyes on the prize
    • Nurtured: Students feel somebody wants and helps them to succeed
    • Engaged: Students actively participate in class and extracurricular activities
    • Connected: Students feel like they are part of the college community
    • Valued: Students’ skills, talents, abilities and experiences are recognized; they have opportunities to contribute on campus and feel their contributions are appreciated

    Study participants both confirmed these six success factors were important to their progress and achievement and indicated that different factors interact with each other in various ways. Students noted how experiencing one factor often led to realizing another or how two factors were inextricably linked to each other. Since students do not experience these factors in isolation, these findings imply that colleges need to consider solutions that can help students attain multiple factors at once. Participants did suggest that some learners might not require all of these supports or that they may need to experience them in different combinations and intensities at varying points along their educational journey. However, by providing students with access that encompasses all six factors, colleges can help ensure that students are able to get the help they need when and how they need it.

  4. Colleges need to provide comprehensive support to historically underserved students to prevent the equity gap from growing. Comprehensive support is more likely to address the multiple needs—academic, financial, social, and personal—identified by African-American, Latino, and first-generation students participating in this study. These students were more likely to cite a lack of academic support, the absence of someone at the college who cared about their success, and insufficient financial assistance as reasons for them not to continue their education. While expanding the existing special populations programs may not be feasible, colleges must find a way to provide a significant portion of these student groups comprehensive support at scale. If they do not, the equity gap will likely continue to grow.
  5. Everyone has a role to play in supporting student achievement, but faculty must take the lead. Student responses highlight how everyone on a campus can affect their achievement. Students underscored the importance of colleges promoting a culture where all individuals across the institution understand their role in advancing students’ success, no matter their position at the college. Yet, across the board, students most commonly recognized instructional faculty as having the greatest potential impact on their educational journeys. Instructors can support student achievement by finding ways to incorporate elements of the six success factors into course content and delivery. Instructional faculty can also work with student services professionals and others across the college to integrate different types of support into the classroom and help students connect with needed assistance outside their coursework.

For more information on the findings regarding student perspectives, please visit the following links:

What will Student Support (Re)defined do next?

The RP Group has now turned its attention to engaging practitioners with study findings and themes and providing structures for exploring and acting on these results (Year 2, 2012 – 2013). We are offering this support in a variety of ways. First, we are working with the colleges that participated in the study through a series of regional convenings. These convenings are designed to help practitioners begin examining study findings, assessing their own colleges’ approach to support based on what students say they need to succeed and identifying opportunities for related institutional change. We are also sharing findings through multiple venues throughout the state, from individual college meetings to association conferences to system-level discussions. Finally, we are developing an action guide to support colleges that are interested in using study findings to reflect on their own student support policies and practices and create a plan for action that will strengthen support on their campuses. We will release the action guide by Fall 2013 and make it available on the project’s website at

In the final year of the project (Year 3, 2013 – 2014), we will continue to deepen our focus on dissemination of study results. During this phase of the project, we will use findings generated in Years 1 and 2 to profile a series of colleges that have pursued coherent institutional change to improve student support. While dissemination efforts are intended to occur throughout the project, this phase will further focus on promoting dialog and action at both the college and system levels regarding ways to encourage institutional approaches that strategically improve student support and increase completion, particularly for historically underrepresented populations.

For more information…

Find more information and all project resources at