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Supporting Postsecondary Retention and Attainment

Author: Michelle Boehm, Research and Evaluation Analyst

According to the Community College Research Center (2015), transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions offers “a critical avenue for upward mobility for many underserved students, including low-income, first-generation, and racial/ethnic minority students, all of whom are disproportionately represented at community colleges”. However, while 80 percent of community college students report they would like to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, only about 25 percent end up transferring to a four-year institution.
Completing a two-year degree prior to transfer and holding transfer-eligible credits are key for the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Research indicates the largest barrier to bachelor’s degree completion among community college students is losing credits when transferring to a four-year institution. Indeed, students who transfer the majority of their community college credits are 2.5 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who transferred less than half of their credits. Furthermore, students who transfer with a certificate or two-year degree are 16 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who transfer without one. [1] 

To support postsecondary retention and attainment among traditionally underserved students, Helios Education Foundation partnered with the Maricopa County Community College District to develop the EXCEL Student Success Program. EXCEL’s aim is to propel first-generation students toward degree completion, utilizing a holistic approach to support students through associate’s/certificate completion and transition into baccalaureate degree-granting institutions. The three-year initiative, launched in 2015 at Estrella Mountain and Glendale Community College campuses, intends to engage 600 first-generation and/or low-income students in the West Valley to increase completion and transfer rates that ultimately bolster employment readiness and economic prosperity. The EXCEL program consists of multiple student services and supports including academic advising and mentoring, community initiative opportunities, financial planning and literacy workshops, summer bridge/summer institute programs and career portfolios and assessments. The EXCEL program also engages the student’s parents through workshops and seminars on topics like financial literacy and academic support.

In order to assess the implementation and initial outcomes of the EXCEL program, Helios Education Foundation and the Maricopa County Community College District contracted with Dr. Melissa Kovacs, FirstEval, LLC to conduct an evaluation of the final two years of the program.

“Helios is committed to research and evaluation of our community investment work,” said Dr. Paul Perrault, Vice President and Director of Research and Evaluation.  “The focus on external accountability helps ensure we are helping to create measurable impact in the communities in which we work.” 

This evaluation project includes metrics such as student and parent satisfaction with the program, successful completion of course credit and four-year institution transfer rates.

The following preliminary data for Cohort One EXCEL participants are encouraging (data are from both Estrella Mountain and Glendale Community Colleges combined):

  • A 95.3 percent fall to spring retention rate
  • A cumulative GPA of 3.03 for the 2015-2016 school year
  • 84 percent of students successfully completed credit hours in the 2015-2016 school year (Grades A, B, C, or P)

In the Fall of 2016, Dr. Kovacs conducted site visits to assess the context and implementation of the EXCEL program.  Some notable strengths she found were strong relationships and an environment conducive to communication and collaboration. More specifically, the following was observed:

  • Strong communication between program and site managers and a committed effort to ensure the program is implemented as designed at both sites consistently.
  • Positive, constructive interactions between EXCEL staff and student participants. During the site visits, there were steady streams of students stopping by to ask questions or receive support. Coordinators routinely meet with students in the program.
  • An office layout conducive to collaboration and openness. In both locations, peer mentor cubicles were located directly outside of the manager’s offices.
  • Both site managers reported they have strong relationships with department heads and deans on their campuses.


Additionally, the EXCEL program has been well-received in the community. Site coordinators have conducted numerous presentations promoting EXCEL at high schools, community organizations, and on campus in classrooms, student orientations, and pre-advisement workshops. The intense support system of the initiative appears to be a real lure to applicants.

According to Georgina Ruiz, EXCEL Coordinator at the Glendale Community College campus, “The EXCEL Program takes a holistic approach with our students, through case management, mentoring, coaching and intrusive advisement, providing an environment of support, motivation and self-efficacy. EXCEL scholars are fully committed to their academic success and are quick to engage in the campus community as student leaders and ambassadors for the program as they exemplify true leadership, resilience and dedication to student success.”

Helios believes that by providing students with supports critical to persistence and aligning supports and systems leading to careers, increasing numbers of underserved students will attain a postsecondary degree or certificate. To read more about the EXCEL Student Success Program, click here.


[1] Community College Research Center. (2015). What we know about transfer. Retrieved from https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/what-we-know-about-transfer.pdf

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