SSPIRE Initiative Print E-mail


To improve the academic achievement and graduation rates among low-income and underprepared community college students by improving the integration of academic instruction and traditional student services.

Initiative Description

The Student Support Partnership Integrating Resources and Education (SSPIRE) initiative was a $3.5 million, three-year regranting and capacity-building initiative, managed by MDRC, a nonprofit social policy research organization. Through SSPIRE, nine California community colleges received grants of up to $250,000 each over three years for a range of programs that integrated instruction and student services. SSPIRE grants supported enhancements to existing programs and new program implementation.

The SSPIRE approach arose from earlier research by MDRC (also supported by Irvine) showing how important student support services such as academic guidance, counseling, tutoring and financial aid are for promoting better student academic outcomes. That research suggested that integrating academic instruction with traditional student services would increase academic performance, persistence and degree completion. Read more about the design and scope of SSPIRE on MDRC’s website.


We asked MDRC to conduct a formative evaluation of SSPIRE due to the firm’s extensive experience with evaluating community college programs. The SSPIRE evaluation was designed to document the strategies at each community college used to integrate student services with academic instruction, and then gather quantitative data about participating students and their academic achievements.

Another goal for SSPIRE and the evaluation was to build the capacity of the participating colleges to conduct their own assessments of campus programs and services. Towards that end, administrators from participating community colleges were trained on internal data collection and analysis so that they could use evaluation findings and methods to refine their programs.


To assess how student support programs in community colleges help low-income and underprepared students persist and succeed in college, there are six primary objectives for the evaluation report:

  1. Describe how the SSPIRE colleges integrated academic instruction and student services
  2. Identify institutional and policy supports or barriers to such integration
  3. Document the number and characteristics of students served in SSPIRE-funded programs and activities
  4. Present key findings from the colleges’ own assessments of SSPIRE programs and activities, including course pass rates or other appropriate student outcomes, and describe how the colleges used this information to improve their programs
  5. Describe the major costs and potential revenue sources for some of the SSPIRE programs
  6. Identify cross-cutting lessons on how colleges can integrate academic instruction and student services, conduct assessments of such efforts and sustain them

Time frame:

2005 – 2008

Participating community colleges:


This evaluation involved interviews, annual site visits and quantitative analysis of data from administrative sources and student surveys. The interviews and site visits focused on understanding program implementation. Descriptive and performance data on students are being collected from the Cal-PASS student data system. MDRC also accessed data on student engagement and instructional practices from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), a nationwide research project of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin.


MDRC’s report about the SSPIRE evaluation shares lessons and challenges of coordinating activities across institutional silos.

  • There were four basic approaches in SSPIRE: learning communities, a “drop-in” study center, a summer math program and case management programs. Learning communities tended to build on existing programs and showed evidence of increased pass rates and persistence. The drop-in study center was deemed successful and is being considered for institutionalization at the host college. The summer math program did not improve student pass rates in the following semester, and the case management approach served few students and would be hard to scale up.
  • While faculty and counseling staff are the key student contacts, the evaluation showed the importance of having a strong program coordinator to bring everything together, and leadership from a dean or vice president to establish integration as a priority for the college.
  • By collecting and analyzing data throughout the initiative, program leaders were able to make timely program improvements, address midcourse corrections and make the case for institutionalizing SSPIRE innovations.

More detailed evaluation findings and profiles of the SSPIRE programs are contained in the full MDRC evaluation report about this initiative.



Dr. Thomas Brock
Director, Young Adults and Postsecondary Education Policy