Lighting the Fire: Student Support for Student Success

When planning this year’s convening of the Breakthrough Models for College Completion grantees, we asked them to identify the issues they were dealing with right now. One of the top three issues that they raised was student support and retention. We dug deeper to learn why it was so important to their implementation and we learned about the grantees’ desire to best serve the students in their programs, many of whom are low-income students and students from other populations that have historically been underserved in higher education. In their efforts to provide a quality education that is affordable – because affordability is itself a student support that aids completion – the breakthrough model developers expressed their intention of being thoughtful and evidence-based as they develop their support systems so that not only are they effective in helping students succeed, but that they are cost effective as well.

Many of the grantees are taking advantage of robust data collected from learning analytics systems in order to identify students that are at-risk or in need of assistance. Several are providing faculty, coaches, advisors, and students with that data through dashboards. They are now studying and seeking advice about what interventions to use to help students surpass the hurdles they are facing and work through their struggles. They want to know what data to track, what types of interventions are likely to make a difference in outcomes for students—for which students in which sets of circumstances, how the interventions should be delivered, who should intervene, and how often they should contact students.

At the convening of these grant recipients two weeks ago in Anaheim, Diego Navarro of the Academy for College Excellence (ACE)—which started at Cabrillo College in California in 2002 (and formerly known as the Digital Bridge Project)—shared some of the research and practices that has led to the success ACE has achieved in helping community college students succeed in their courses, accelerate to college-level coursework, and earn credits toward completion.

The ACE model integrates support for students into the curriculum, holistically addressing students’ academic, emotional, social, and professional needs. A two-week Foundation Course aims to “light the fire” of motivation for learning. The original companion to the Foundation Course—the ACE bridge semester—fast-tracks developmental students’ entry into college-level and more advanced math and English coursework. Several variations of this model have been used to adapt to different institutions and different student populations.

Independent evaluation studies have shown that ACE students are more likely than their peers who don’t participate to complete college-level and more advanced English and mathematics (and complete it earlier), enroll full-time and earn more credits in the semester following their ACE participation, and develop their affective behaviors, motivation, and academic goals. The positive outcomes have been replicated at multiple institutions. And the program is sustainable without external funding because it is integrated into the curriculum and is course-based.

The conversation at the convening between Navarro and the breakthrough model developers circled around the affective indicators of student success. The breakthrough models have not necessarily been collecting or using data on academic self-efficacy, personal responsibility, college identify, mindfulness (focusing, accepting, describing, observing), and leadership and teamwork efficacy. But these factors are as predictive and sometimes more predictive of student success than prior academic achievement. And students that breakthrough models are designed to serve may not have had opportunities to develop these skills.

The conversation also touched upon the question of whether and how the ACE program—which relies upon peer relationships among a cohort of students as well as student-faculty relationships—might work in an online environment. ACE is currently working with Western Governor’s University to develop an online version of its curriculum and is seeking institutional partners to pilot and study the approach.

As stated in one of the handouts that Navarro shared with convening participants:

“Developers of the ACE model made intentional choices to focus on building students’ intrinsic growth or internal capacity to take care of themselves and each other, rather than provision of services to students.”

To learn more about ACE, visit:

To learn more about the Breakthrough Models for College Completion, visit:

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