The Pell Institute publishes research and analyses that address equal educational opportunity, particularly the outcomes for low-income, first-generation, and disabled students. Additional publications include occasional papers, policy briefs, and an electronic newsletter.

Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs

ASHE-Pell Institute Collaboration Publishes Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) is pleased to announce the publication of a compilation of essays from the perspectives of both researchers and practitioners entitled — Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs. The compilation is a collection of essays written by university-based researchers and College Access professionals around the theme of how researchers and practitioner professionals can best work together to inform one another and promote better outcomes for students. This publication is a product of collaboration between Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and the Pell Institute. In 2014, ASHE received a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to support its initiative to improve research-and-practice connection. ASHE-Pell Collaboration gathered higher education researchers and TRIO and other college access professionals to find ways to better connect research and college access and success program best practice.

In the 21st. century, there is increasing recognition of the need for research-practice collaboration in order to have more valid and accurate research and more informed practice. New models of evaluations are emerging such as participatory, collaborative, action, empowerment, and systems analysis all of which recognize the inherent links between the research and practice. Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs provides essays that reflect on the lessons learned from the history of research-practice relationship in TRIO programs, and explore both the challenges and positive trust building experiences through case studies of researcher practitioner collaborations. The essays also review recent initiatives to foster use of evidence based research, designing programs for program improvement and fostering data use in college access programs, including a review content of entries in the What Works Clearing House. The essays also include results of the Collaboration’s exploratory landscape survey on the use of research and evaluation among TRIO programs. Recommendations and conclusions for moving forward are also provided throughout.

For more information about ASHE-Pell Collaboration, please click here.

The following essays are included in Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs.


  • Improving Connections between Research and Practice by Laura Perna (.pdf)
    This essay first reflects on the differences between researchers and practitioners and then offers suggestions for ways to improve connections between TRIO program research and practice. It concludes by offering additional recommendations for ways that TRIO practitioners and academic researchers can collaborate to accomplish shared goals for first-generation and low-income students.

  • Connecting Practitioners and Researchers to Strengthen College Access and Success Programs by Paul Beasley (.pdf)
    TRIO programs have had a complex relationship with research which illustrates some of the problems that must be addressed to connect research and practice in college access programs. This paper explores that relationship from the vantage point of over 40 years of experience in TRIO administration. It reviews the impact of federal regulations on program development and the consequences of several national studies that used both experimental and quasi-experimental designs. This paper concludes with ideas for strengthening the link between research and practice in college access that emphasizes practitioners as full partners in the process. It calls on government, professional associations, and higher education to facilitate these partnerships to encourage high quality research studies that focus on identifying effective strategies and that show evident respect for the programs and their participants.

  • Evaluation Errors: Sixteen Lessons for Researchers and Practitioners from the Mathematica Upward Bound Study by Margaret Cahalan (.pdf)
    The long running National Evaluation of Upward Bound (1992-2009) was considered a gold standard random assignment study designed to assess the average impact of the Upward Bound Program. After the study had been active for over a decade, and published several impact reports, a quality assurance review conducted by ED found serious sample design, treatment control group bias and analyses and reporting issues that were serious enough to impact the study conclusions. Using the Upward Bound evaluation as a case study, this essay presents 16 lessons learned for researchers and practitioners alike for future evaluations in designing, implementing, analyzing, and reporting results.


  • Relationship and Trust-Building between Researchers and Practitioners: Toward Educational Equity for Under-Served Populations by Judy Marquez Kiyama (.pdf)
    Researchers and practitioners often work towards common goals when considering access and success efforts for traditionally underserved populations. Yet, collaborations across these roles are rare and when they do occur, can be met with organizational, political, financial, and ideological challenges. This essay will explore some of these challenges and focus particular attention on the benefits of such collaborations when relationships are built on trust and reciprocity.

  • Building Trust between Researchers and Practitioners through Research Collaborations by Kristan Venegas (.pdf)
    The goal of this essay is to explore ways that researchers and practitioners can work together to build trust in research collaborations. The essay considers building trust through research in three ways: (1) how researchers can work with practitioners to develop meaningful research designs; (2) how researchers and practitioners can collaborate around the technical aspects of research, including getting access to quantitative datasets and getting into qualitative fieldwork settings, and (3) how practitioners can work with researchers to make strategic improvements based on research findings.

  • Common Ground & Upward Bound: Lessons from a Cross-Institutional Collaboration by Ezekiel Kimball, Tyson Rose, Yedalis Ruiz, and Ryan Wells (.pdf)
    Research findings demonstrate the importance of shared understandings, or “cognitive common ground” in collaborations. Yet, college-going is complex, and potential differences in perspective among scholars, practitioners, and students may easily arise. In this paper, we use insights from practice and relevant research to describe how common ground can be nurtured.

  • Researcher and Practitioner Collaboration to Advance Inquiry and Its Usage by Angela Bell, Robert Anderson Georgia Hughes-Webb, and Adam S. Green (.pdf)
    This essay explores the relationship between researchers and staff of college access and success programs. Although collaborations between the two are at times challenging, the outcomes are significant for all. The essay goes on to show a case study example from the West Virginia GEAR UP, and concludes with a list of recommendations.

  • Designing Program Outcomes with an Eye towards Program Improvement by Christopher M. Mullin (.pdf)
    This essay focuses on the way programs should be structured in order to address both program improvement and excellence. It closes with a discussion about two supporting factors critical to the success of the process: leadership and management.

  • Creating and Sharing Knowledge through Communities of Practice by Oscar Felix (.pdf)
    Building a community around a shared learning interest is not a new or innovative concept. However, collective learning and information sharing can bring new perspectives and improved practices to a professional organization in need of wider member participation. Communities of Practice in the context of College Access and Success Programs provide community members with additional resources, tools, and research findings to improve student services and outcomes.

  • Under the Pressure to Replicate “Evidence-Based” Intervention, TRIO Programs should Build their Logics of Evidence Use by Mika Yamashita (.pdf)
    This essay discusses the origin of the competitive preference priorities (CPP) that appeared in Student Support Services (SSS) and Talent Search grant applications in 2014 and 2015. In these competitions, CPP encouraged programs to propose evidence-based interventions. I discuss the CPP as a series of policy instruments that the federal government implemented to promote evidence-based policymaking. The idea underlying CPP is that by encouraging grantees to implement evidence-based interventions, the grant programs are likely to deliver results. One important element of this assumption is that randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the best methods to ascertain if an intervention is effective. After describing limitations of applying findings from RCTs to improve program practice, I argue that TRIO programs need to articulate their own specific logics of evidence use that reflect how TRIO professionals work in practice. This is because RCTs alone can provide very limited information about actual interventions for TRIO professionals to improve their own programs. Research questions that reflect how TRIO programs actually work are needed.


  • TRIO, the What Works Clearinghouse, and the Competitive Preference Priorities(CPPs): An Imposed Structured Practitioner-Research Collaboration By Margaret Cahalan (.pdf)
    The “imposed structure” of incorporating competitive preference priorities (CPPs) for the use of evidence-based strategies as defined by the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) has the potential to fundamentally redefine the relationship between practice and research within federal grants in education. Given the focus of this compilation on practitioner-research collaboration in this essay, we explore the implications of these new regulations and associated competitions for TRIO programs and service. We present an overview of the WWC history and the content of the reviews in the areas of relevance to TRIO. Then we review the results of the specific application in the SSS competitions. Finally we discuss the limitations of using the WWC and give some reflections on making the use of “evidence based research” more helpful.

  • Results of the ASHE-Pell Collaboration’s Exploratory Landscape Survey by Mika Yamashita (.pdf)
    This paper summarizes results from a survey called the ASHE-Pell Institute Collaboration Landscape Survey. The purpose of this survey was to acquire descriptive information about how TRIO directors had used research and evaluation to inform their program planning, how their program had conducted evaluation, and what effective strategies and practices their programs used.

For more information about the Reflections on Connecting Research and Practice in College Access and Success Programs, please contact Margaret Cahalan, Director, Pell Institute, via e-mail at (