Giving Compass' Take:

• Kelsey Piper discusses the failure of the iPASS program -- intended to help low-income students stay in college -- and the success of the evaluation program that revealed the failure. 

• How can funders best learn from this failure and build more effective programs? 

• Read about programs for low-income college students that work


Many low-income and first-generation college students don’t graduate from college. One thing that seems to change that? High-quality advising. When a school can offer advisers who work directly with students to address barriers to getting an education, students perform better and are more likely to graduate.

So how can we make advising work better? In 2013, the Gates Foundation started a new initiative called iPASS (Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success) to see if it can make the difference. iPASS funds school efforts to use technology to help advisers identify at-risk students, follow up with them regularly, connect them to tutoring, and otherwise get them what they need to succeed and graduate.

But there’s a problem.

According to a new analysis of the effects of the iPASS program by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University and social policy research group MDRC, it’s not doing anything. “The enhancements have so far had no discernible positive effects on students’ academic performance,” the report concludes. Even worse, at one school the program backfired and made students likelier to drop out.

That’s bad news.

But I come here not to bury iPass but to praise it — or rather its creators. Like the program itself, the study was funded by the Gates Foundation. That’s significant; historically, charities haven’t always been great about funding careful third-party evaluations of their new programs. When the programs fail, they don’t always notice.

By funding such a study, the Gates Foundation was able to realize that iPASS is not yet working. And now, colleges are thinking about how to make it better.

Education research is really hard. Lots of well-meaning programs backfire, do nothing, or are worse than just giving people money. The latest research is a reminder of how hard this is, but also an example of how to do it right.

Read the full article about the iPASS program by Kelsey Piper at Vox.