For many low-income students, the gateway to higher education is through urban community colleges. But many of those students have received poor educations in high school, and have a good chance of getting stuck in remedial courses and never graduating.
Some community colleges are experimenting with new approaches to educating these students, but there are few examples of concrete evidence of how successful those approaches are. This week, however, a study  is being released that suggests that the use of "learning communities" can have a significant impact on the success of students who need the most help.
The study -- conducted at Kingsborough Community College -- is significant because it is something of a rarity in education research: random selection was used for students in the program being studied and the control group. Because most research on education innovations does not feature truly random comparisons, factors such as student motivation or self-selection come into play.
The Kingsborough study was done by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group. It found that students who participated in the learning communities showed better grades, better retention, and -- perhaps most important -- more success at doing college-level work. Of students who failed both the reading and writing basic skills examination prior to enrolling, 33 percent of students in the program passed both tests within a year of starting. In contrast, only 14 percent of other Kingsborough students passed both tests in a similar time frame.
The concept of learning communities differs somewhat from campus to campus. At Kingsborough, where it is called Open Doors, it involves students being grouped into cohorts of 25 students. The cohorts then take a sequence of three courses together, with the courses meeting right after each other. Extra tutoring and counseling is available to the cohort, although similar programs are available to students who do not enroll in Open Doors.
The study is too recent to have long-term data. But even based on just a few years of data, the authors of the study say that the findings could be a guide for other institutions. "It certainly appears that the Open Doors program at Kingsborough is giving students a boost," the report said. "It seems fairly clear that the Open Doors program can substantially improve student performance…. Open Doors students are both more likely to take critical developmental courses – and more likely to pass their courses – than their control group counterparts."