Di Xu
“Community college is a sector that needs more research and support,” says UCI education associate professor Di Xu. UCI School of Education

Di Xu, associate professor of education at the University of California, Irvine, recently received a pair of grants that will further research into making math and career & technical education programs more effective. Two recently revamped programs at 23 Virginia community colleges will be assessed: one for non-career and technical education and the other for gateway math courses.

“Community college is a sector that needs more research and support,” said Xu, who first started to interview community college students for research as a graduate student. “I vividly remember talking to one working mom who had only a high school degree and wanted to improve her academic and labor market skills, not only so she would thrive in a career, but also to provide better opportunities for her child. I thought: if there was anything I could do to support this population, how great that would be.”

The Institute of Education Sciences provided a $1.7 million grant for Xu’s team to examine non-credit career and technical courses (CTE), a project launched in June. They collaborate with administrators at the Virginia Community College System and colleagues at the University of Virginia and MDRC. CTE courses appeal to both students and employers, offering job skills training for fields from welding to public health. Over four million U.S. students were enrolled in CTE courses in 2020, according to the American Association of Community Colleges – about 40% of total enrollment at two-year institutions.

There is a dearth of research on how effective these non-credit programs are – especially whether students who complete the courses actually get better jobs and pay.

Xu said, “The main goal of the non-credit sector seems to be the promise of economic returns for students seeking workforce training, yet we have limited knowledge of what those returns are, and next to nothing about specific program features that are associated with better student outcomes. This research aims to delineate key – and currently unavailable – core evidence about noncredit career technical programs, including their impacts on students’ labor market outcomes and malleable factors within the control of programs or institutions that may influence students’ educational and workforce outcomes.”

In January 2023, Xu will launch another study supported by a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate community colleges’ efforts to support students who are underprepared for college-level math. This project, also in collaboration with the Virginia Community College System, will measure the success of a program the VCCS introduced called Direct Enrollment Reform. The reform is designed to improve access to and success in gateway math courses by incorporating three key components: more accurate placement, proactive advising and coaching, and a “corequisite model” that provides support as students are concurrently enrolled in the gateway course.

Xu, in collaboration with administrators and faculty at VCCS and colleagues at the University of Delaware will look at how those reforms are being implemented across the 23 campuses and evaluate what’s working well. As with the research project on non-credit CTE courses, Xu will provide data and research findings to VCSS throughout the process so that effective practices can be adopted promptly.

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