Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Cathy M. Engstrom


Academic Underpreparedness, Community Colleges, Learning Communities, Student Engagement, Student Persistence, Student Retention

Subject Categories



This study examined the impact of basic skills curricular learning communities on academically underprepared community college students to determine if participation in such programs significantly contributed to student persistence from year one to year two. The conceptual framework that informed this study was Tinto's (1993) longitudinal model of student departure. In addition, the research on student engagement (Kuh, 2003b) served as a backdrop for considering how the basic skills curricular learning community programs may have influenced students' perceptions of their institution (support and encouragement) and their experiences (preparation, engagement with instructors, engagement with classmates, and feedback) and, in turn, contributed to student persistence.

Sponsored by the Lumina Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, this study served as the quantitative analysis for the Pathways to Student Success initiative (Engstrom & Tinto, 2007), a multi-institution sample that included both self-reported data, collected by the survey instrument, and enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). The study included data from 13 community colleges with basic skills curricular learning community programs. All 13 colleges a) had a learning community program which linked a non-credit bearing basic skills course to at least one other course; b) had a learning community program for some duration and had institutional data to demonstrate its effectiveness in increasing student engagement and persistence; c) represented various types of structures and organization of programs to meet the needs of academically underprepared students; and d) served student populations considered at risk for not completing a degree/certificate. Each participating institution identified a learning community group and comparison (non-learning community) group to be surveyed in Fall 2003; in these comparison groups, the students' academic skills and individual characteristics were to resemble those of students in the learning community group.

The use of a valid and reliable survey instrument allowed for analysis across institutions and group (learning community versus comparison groups). The survey instrument used in this study was a modified version of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) instrument (CCSSE, 2010) which helped to measure participation in a variety of educationally purposeful activities and the supportive nature of the institutional environment, commonly referred to as engagement. Finally, persistence data, collected from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), was used to track student enrollment from one academic year to the next. The NSC is a non-profit organization that provides student degree and enrollment verification services. The survey data and persistence data were used to determine the effectiveness of curricular learning communities for academically underprepared students in meeting two primary objectives: to increase student engagement and to increase student persistence.

The results revealed no practical differences in levels of student engagement between basic skills curricular learning community and comparison group participants. One engagement variable--personal encouragement and support--significantly and positively contributed to student persistence from year one to year two. Being in a basic skills curricular learning community significantly and positively contributed to student persistence, with participants being 1.272 times more likely to persist than those students in the comparison group; however, the analysis did not allow for causal conclusions between curricular learning community participation, student engagement, and persistence. The inclusion of group (learning community or comparison group) and engagement variables in the logistic regression model did not substantially increase correctly predicting student persistence. The results and limitations of this study suggest the need for continued research on basic skills curricular learning communities as an intervention strategy designed to strengthen the academic skills of underprepared students, facilitate student engagement, and foster student persistence


Open Access

Included in

Education Commons