Spotlight on Innovation: LaGuardia Community College Pilots Project COMPLETA to Support First-Gen, Low-Income Students

Image of a student with a backpack on campus


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

by Lisa Cook and Daniel Fusch, Academic Impressions

LaGuardia Community College’s students in Queens, NY face a bevy of obstacles to their academic success. The college serves a mix of first-generation, low-income, and minority students, more than 70 percent of them from families who earn less than $25,000 annually. LaGuardia also offers GED programs; many students who complete the GED then successfully apply and are admitted to LaGuardia, but unfortunately many of these students fall away in “summer melt.”

LaGuardia hopes to get those students back on track and help other low-income and underrepresented students succeed through Project COMPLETA, Comprehensive Support for Student Success, which will be funded by a $2.9 million First in the World grant. We reached out to Bret Eynon, associate dean for teaching and learning and director of the Making Connections National Resource Center at LaGuardia to learn more about this promising integrated support model.

A Look Inside Project COMPLETA

Eynon explains in Spanish por completa means to “make whole, to go all out, to make perfect” – a good description of COMPLETA’s goals for student development and student success. Approximately 25,000 students will participate in COMPLETA. LaGuardia enrolled 2,300 students in the First Year Seminar in Fall 2014, and another 1,500 are expected this spring. The program consists of three core initiatives:

  • Implement the “Back on Track” program
  • Rethink the First Year Seminar
  • Transform advising for all students


Back on Track focuses on students transitioning from LaGuardia’s high school equivalency program to college enrollment. Back on Track will provide counseling and targeted programming — such as programs focused around remedial mathematics. LaGuardia will also strengthen pre-enrollment support, offer specialized orientations and skills workshops and provide advisement to every transitioning student, with the goal of increasing the number of students who successfully enroll by 10 percent.


LaGuardia’s new First Year Seminar is replacing the previous New Student Seminar, which Eynon notes was found to be “largely ineffective” because the majority of students either avoided the course or dropped out. The old course, while required for graduation, rarely was connected to students’ majors, and students didn’t earn college credit. The new required seminar is credit bearing, organized by major, and taught by faculty in that discipline. It also includes:

  • An introduction to careers in each major
  • Intensive advisement
  • Co-curricular engagement
  • An introduction to LaGuardia’s technology suite
  • ePortfolios, which will help students reflect on their learning and will move with them all the way to their capstone courses. The new ePortfolios, Eynon suggests, will support “engagement, reflection and deep learning that shapes not only knowledge and skill but also identity development.” Students will use the college’s ePortfolio system to define goals, engage in self-assessment and develop a two-year educational plan that will help LaGuardia provide more targeted advising for these students.
  • Trained peer mentors will lead a weekly Studio Hour in a computer lab to support students as they develop their ePortfolios, and to serve as role models.


The third core component is a campus-wide endeavor to train faculty, staff, and peer mentors to guide students through their journey at LaGuardia. Some advising will be paired with the First Year Seminar, but this holistic model also builds from that seminar to provide teams of people to guide and support students on their path to graduation, transition to a four-year college, and careers.

“We have developed and launched a new system of team-based advisement, where faculty work together with advisement professionals and peer mentors in discipline-based teams,” Eynon explains. LaGuardia had examined its previous advising system with the organization Achieving the Dream and realized that the system was too fragmented to be sufficiently effective.

Keys to Success

Project COMPLETA is strongly influenced by the retention research of John Braxton. To make a positive difference in the lives of the 25,000 students that will be enrolled in the program, it will be important to build relationships and support students who juggle multiple responsibilities outside of college. LaGuardia will offer multiple interventions linked by a cohesive overarching strategy.

Also informing LaGuardia’s approach is the work of Richard Keeling, leading author of Learning Reconsidered, which stresses the importance of the integration of academic and student affairs in order to jointly advance the knowledge, skills, dispositions and values of the whole student. LaGuardia hopes to see a college-wide focus on how the work students need to do while in college leads to the work students will do in their career.

Why You Should Watch This Project

LaGuardia’s exploration of how to support student development more holistically, aligning education and career from the first semester, is an intriguing project — and it needn’t be of interest only to community colleges. Increasingly, employers are asking for college graduates who can demonstrate the skill sets that a liberal arts education is intended to develop. In his


Most academics emphasize that colleges are in the business of education (“knowing why“) and not training (“knowing how“). The classic example offered is that to know why planes fly, you need to be educated in physics and aeronautical engineering. But knowing why an airplane can fly doesn’t give you any ability to actually fly one.

This may be a valid distinction, but that doesn’t mean that institutions can’t, or shouldn’t, offer both outcomes. In the end, employers want employees who know both “how” and “why.” In fact, recently employers are calling for more of the “why.” 93% of employers stated in a recent survey that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”

“…In the end, producing students who are independent and critical thinkers is exactly what both our nation and our economy need. It’s time we worry less about the differences between education and training — and think more about ways to accomplish both.”
Amit Mrig, Academic Impressions

You can read more of Amit Mrig’s editorial here.

How is your college – or department – thinking about the skills gap? Are you developing more proactive strategies to engage first-generation or low-income students?