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The National Center for Postsecondary Research aims to tackle a critical question for our nation: How do we help students both make the transition to college and master the skills needed to advance to a degree?

Every year, poor academic preparation prevents millions of students nationwide from accessing, achieving in, or completing higher education. And while colleges have implemented programs and policies to help students succeed, there is little hard evidence about the effects of such practices. The National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) uses rigorous research methods to evaluate programs used by two- and four-year institutions in order to help remedy this problem.

NCPR is housed at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, and is operated in collaboration with partners MDRC and the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and with a professor at Harvard University. The Center was established in 2006 and is funded by a grant of $9,813,619 from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Through its research, NCPR aims to:

•    Reduce barriers to college and other education programs
•    Ease students’ transition from high school to college
•    Make college advancement easier
•    Increase college completion rates

The NCPR Research Agenda

Weak academic preparation and inadequate social skills impede access to and achievement in higher education for millions of young people. Students who graduate from high school are often judged to be ill-prepared for college-level studies. Many who do enroll in college struggle academically, often withdrawing from college before completing a degree. These general problems pervade two-year and four-year institutions, although, as open-access institutions, community colleges tend to enroll many of the students who face the greatest challenges.

In response to these problems, postsecondary institutions employ programs to strengthen student skills and provide institutional supports at or even before the point of entry as a means both to enhance student access and to build a foundation for subsequent success and graduation. NCPR research focuses on several such programs: developmental education, with a particular emphasis on learning communities; summer bridge programs, which aim to raise the skills of incoming students in the summer before they enter college; and dual enrollment programs, which enable high school students to enroll in college courses and earn college credit.

Considerable resources are being devoted to each of these strategies. And although there are a growing number of studies of these models, most suffer from methodological problems that prevent causal estimates of program effectiveness. There is, in fact, little definitive research on the effectiveness of any of these models in improving students’ transition to college and persistence once there.

Thus, for learning communities and summer bridge programs, NCPR is conducting random assignment experimental studies that will generate internally valid estimates of program effects. These projects focus on the tracking of post-program student outcomes and include associated qualitative research to understand implementation and treatment variability, which will also generate insights into why programs are or are not effective. 

In addition, NCPR is conducting quasi-experimental analyses of dual enrollment and developmental education using longitudinal unit record datasets from several states. The use of large state unit record datasets is a relatively new approach to research on postsecondary practice and policy. Using a variety of quantitative methodologies, researchers will estimate the influence of these programs on student outcomes. The results from these analyses will be used to supplement, extend, and verify the conclusions of NCPR’s experiments.  

While these activities define its core research agenda, NCPR also conducts research on other topics, chosen in collaboration with IES. For example, IES provides partial support for an ongoing NCPR-related project on the financial aid application process called the H&R Block FAFSA experiment, described below.