Diversity and Democracy

Connect2Complete: Linking Student Success with Civic Engagement

The higher education reform movement known as "the completion agenda" seeks to significantly increase the number of students graduating from college. This is certainly an important goal. Yet as many higher education professionals have pointed out, the completion agenda's singular focus on "time to degree" may emphasize efficiency to the detriment of high-quality learning (Humphreys 2012). Aware of these critiques, community colleges are seeking innovative ways to increase graduation rates while also improving the quality of student learning. Campus Compact's Connect2Complete (C2C) program aims to reach this goal by creating new, community-oriented models that support student success.

Campus Compact launched Connect2Complete in January 2012 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. C2C aims to improve persistence by combining two strategies: peer advocacy and community-engaged learning. Together, these strategies encourage academic development, social integration, and personal development—all key factors in student persistence (see, for example, Cress et al. 2010; Crisp 2010). C2C applies these benefits to the challenges facing economically disadvantaged students, who persist and graduate at lower rates than their more affluent counterparts (Bailey, Jeong, and Cho 2009). The program seeks to reduce the barriers that cause economically disadvantaged developmental education students to struggle in college while empowering these students to participate fully as members of their various communities.

C2C Program Framework

During a two-year pilot, C2C institutions will engage underprepared, low-income students in high-quality community-engaged learning experiences and peer advocacy. With subgrants distributed by the national Campus Compact office, nine community colleges and their related state Campus Compact affiliates are participating in the C2C pilot. These include Broward College, Miami Dade College, and Tallahassee Community College (Florida Campus Compact); Cuyahoga Community College, Lorain County Community College, and Owens Community College (Ohio Campus Compact); and Big Bend Community College, Edmonds Community College, and Green River Community College (Washington Campus Compact).

C2C models at these institutions fall into two broad categories: course-based and cocurricular. In the course-based model, peer advocates (PAs) work alongside faculty in developmental education classes and support students during service-learning activities, as well as through social media and online platforms, office hours, campus events, and other contexts outside of class. For example, at Owens Community College, the C2C program coordinator pairs the PAs (called "civic ambassadors") with math and English developmental education faculty to support student learning (see Christina Perry's article in this issue of Diversity & Democracy). In the cocurricular model, student affairs staff coordinate with PAs who mentor small groups of developmental education students and facilitate community-engaged learning activities. Most pilot campuses have also created cocurricular service activities that bring together new and older cohorts of PAs and C2C students so that C2C students stay connected beyond their first semester in the program.

Peer Advocacy for Community Engaged Learning

Each C2C college is testing peer-to-peer advocacy models that reflect its particular campus culture. All campuses offer students either federal work-study funds, credited or non-credited leadership development training, or both. PAs support student success in two primary ways: by serving as mentors and by supporting community-engaged learning activities.

As mentors, PAs provide a variety of supports. They help students explore their multiple identities, life experiences, and self-concepts to develop a college-staying identity (Savitz-Romer and Bouffard 2012). They assist students in building relationships with peers, faculty, and advisors and in connecting with resources such as academic support centers, child care, public assistance benefits, financial aid, and homeless services. They support students in developing an understanding of and comfort with the unwritten rules of college and help them navigate the college experience (Crisp 2010).

As leaders of community-engaged learning, PAs receive training and work closely with developmental education faculty and community engagement staff. They introduce students to service-learning pedagogy, which promotes academic achievement, makes classroom learning relevant to the real world, and "has a positive effect on students' sense of personal efficacy…and leadership and communication skills," among other outcomes (Cress et al. 2010, 11). They also develop and maintain relationships with community or campus partners, facilitate reflection, and plan workshops that connect service and coursework to civic learning outcomes.

Preliminary Lessons Learned

Together with pilot sites and partner evaluators at Brandeis University, Campus Compact is collecting data on promising C2C practices. Early lessons have appeared in three primary areas: models for implementation, systems for supporting developmental education faculty, and ways of reimagining service learning to better meet the needs and draw on the assets of a vulnerable student population.

Early experiences suggest that course-based models have distinct advantages over cocurricular models. First, developmental education students with heavy work and family responsibilities may not have time for extracurricular activities, and course-based models reach them where they are—in the classroom. Second, service-learning pedagogy can make classroom learning more relevant to students' lives—a key connection for students who may doubt the usefulness of a college education. Third, by recruiting students through course enrollment, the program can reach those who might not otherwise seek support, and are therefore the ones who need it most. Fourth, course-based models offer opportunities for C2C students to develop strong connections with faculty. Finally, an approach that focuses funding on faculty training and draws on work-study resources may offer a cost-effective way to reach a large number of students.

The pilot program also has demonstrated that professional development and community-building opportunities for faculty are critical to success. Campus Compact has thus created a national C2C Faculty Fellows Community of Practice comprised of two developmental education faculty members from each C2C campus. Through facilitated phone calls, an online forum, and face-to-face meetings, these faculty are sharing, solving problems, and creating practical tools for peer-assisted service learning and peer advocacy. Fellows are working with their colleagues to design and implement discipline-specific curriculum projects and to promote service learning and peer advocacy among other developmental education faculty on their campuses.

Finally, C2C has reminded pilot participants that the typical "in here"/"out there" map of campus–community partnerships does not apply for developmental education students. As Zlotkowski and colleagues write, "The community college can itself be viewed as a community-based organization: It is of, not simply in, a particular place" (2004, 79). To find vulnerable populations and systemic inequality, one need only look around campus, where cuts to Pell grant funds coincide with the emergence of food banks to meet student needs (see Krista Kiessling's article in this issue of Diversity & Democracy). The C2C work thus challenges campuses not to abandon traditional community partnerships, but rather to expand our understanding of the community. Within the campus community, where student interests can be synonymous with community interests and students themselves can give voice to community needs, service activities can simultaneously address issues of inequity and meet student needs.


C2C project participants are engaged in cutting-edge practices to support college success. Their work translates the needs and interests of students, faculty, and local community members in innovative ways, transforming the meaning and value of community for each college campus.

Campus Compact is a national coalition of almost 1,200 college and university presidents—representing some six million students—who are committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education. For more information about Connect2Complete, contact Shana Berger at sberger@compact.org or visit http://www.compact.org/initiatives/connect2complete/.


Bailey, Thomas, Dong Wook Jeong, and Sung-Woo Cho. 2009. Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community Colleges. Community College Research Center Working Paper No. 15.

Cress, Christine, Cathy Burack, Dwight E. Giles, Julie Elkins, and Margaret Carnes Stevens. 2010. A Promising Connection: Increasing College Access and Success through Civic Engagement. Boston, MA: Campus Compact.

Crisp, Gloria. 2010. "The Impact of Mentoring on the Success of Community College Students." Review of Higher Education 34 (1): 39–60.

Humphreys, Debra. 2012. "What's Wrong with the Completion Agenda—And What We Can Do About It." Liberal Education 98 (1): 8–17.

Savitz-Romer, Mandy, and Suzanne M. Bouffard. 2012. Ready, Willing and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access & Success. Boston, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Zlotkowski, Edward, Donna Killian Duffy, Robert Franco, Sherril B. Gelmon, Katrina H. Norvell, Jennifer Meeropol, and Steven Jones. 2004. "The Community's College: Indicators of Engagement at Two-Year Institutions." Providence, RI: Campus Compact.

Shana Berger is Connect2Complete project manager at Campus Compact.

Previous Issues