Wheelhouse Research Collaboration Council: Shaping Our Understanding of Pandemic Recovery

By Alexandria Hurtt

Students walking down hallway

This blog post is the first in a series on the Wheelhouse Research Collaboration Council. The second blog post discusses various pandemic recovery initiatives and the third post reports on a zero textbook cost initiative.

With the pandemic disrupting and reshaping higher education, new research seeks to understand how California community colleges—which enroll over 20% of the nation’s community college students—navigated disruptions to learning. The project, led by researchers at Wheelhouse at the University of California, Davis, aims to identify effective institution-level strategies to ensure educational continuity during and following the pandemic and to inform future institutional responses.

To understand the effectiveness of numerous efforts to re-engage community college students and support their success, my colleagues and I at UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California surveyed California community colleges about recovery activities and interviewed numerous college leaders. We will use those survey results to explore the relationship between college-level recovery activities and a variety of measures of student success, including enrollment persistence (e.g., fall-to-fall enrollment), credit accumulation, GPA, degree and certificate attainment, and transfer to four-year universities. We will then employ quasi-experimental analytic strategies to evaluate the causal relationships between particular recovery activities and student outcomes. This research, one of the projects in the ARCC Network, will inform practitioner and policymaker understanding of whether, where, and for whom recovery investments have made a difference.

Because the development of evidence does not necessarily lead to the scaling of effective practices, we are also engaging community college leaders across the state in continuous improvement-focused activities that build upon our findings. Wheelhouse formed a Research Collaboration Council (RCC) in 2022 to bring together 12 community college CEOs from a diverse set of colleges and college districts in California. The RCC serves a dual purpose: (1) to inform and advise the research conducted by Wheelhouse and (2) to establish a community of practice for college leaders working to improve campus policies, practices, and processes with implications for student success.

The research team is collaborating with the Wheelhouse RCC in a variety of ways. In November 2023, the RCC met face-to-face, using a modified “step-back” consulting method to dissect and consider refinements to a particular innovation undertaken by their campuses to increase student engagement. They enumerated and analyzed the internal and external factors that contributed to these efforts and the barriers to bringing them to scale. Guided by the principles of data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement, the CEOs discussed efforts to change campus culture, support curricular innovation among faculty, collaborate with regional K-12 partnerships, and strengthen student supports, including more expansive provisions for basic needs. This collective learning is a key component of our approach to researcher–practitioner engagement, motivating and providing space for college leaders to reflect on and refine their practice over time.

Almost a dozen individual recovery efforts were dissected during this work session, including Compton College’s initiative to feed students through farmer’s market gift cards and a free daily meal on campus; Evergreen Valley College’s push to humanize curriculum to provide greater relevance and engagement for students; Mount San Antonio College’s refinement of crisis response procedures; Copper Mountain’s and Merced College’s efforts to revive organizational culture through a focus on communication norms and employee well-being; North Orange Community College District’s push for greater diversity in faculty hiring; Orange Coast College’s effort to reinvigorate its educational master plan and develop a diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility plan; Reedley College’s and Shasta College’s initiatives to recover enrollment through investments in K-12 partnerships and programs to upskill and reskill adult learners; and San Jose City College’s concerted and multifaceted drive to strengthen students’ sense of belonging and thus their retention in the classroom. We detail three of these efforts in a second blog post; in a later blog post, we will explore in more detail the work of Cosumnes River College to zero-out the cost of textbooks in all courses using one-time federal recovery dollars.

As the pandemic continues to shape the community college system, this collaborative effort between Wheelhouse and California community college CEOs aims to strengthen the connection between research, practice, and policy. By identifying the challenges and recovery strategies that kept students connected to their educational trajectories despite unprecedented disruption, this work will expand our understanding of how best to support community college students and those who serve them in institutional leadership roles.

To learn more about this project and prior Wheelhouse research, please visit our website.

Alexandria Hurtt is a research fellow at the California Education Lab at the University of California, Davis.

The research reported here is part of a broader effort to document California Community Colleges’ recovery activities to inform community college leaders and state policymakers on best practices post-pandemic. This multi-year Wheelhouse and California Education Lab project, titled Evidence to Inform Improvement: Supporting California Community Colleges in Pandemic Recovery, is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences (Grant R305X220016) in a grant to the University of California, Davis, and is part of the ARCC Network. Other partners include the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), the Community College Research Center (CCRC), and the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.


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