Our Story


The mission of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) is to use research and evaluation methods to improve policies, programs, and practices that enhance community college education and the transition to college for diverse learners at the state, national, and international levels. 

For 30 years OCCRL has conducted research on programs, policies, and practices that span P-20 education and strengthen pathways to postsecondary education and careers. With an intense focus on how community colleges impact education and employment outcomes, OCCRL enhances results for diverse youth and adults who want to transition to and through college to further their education and/or their gainful employment.

Results of OCCRL’s studies are disseminated worldwide. Reports and materials are derived from new knowledge captured and distributed through OCCRL’s website, scholarly publications, and other platforms.

OCCRL Core Areas

Strategic Direction and Priorities

As one of the longest-standing community college research centers and an early adopter and contributor to educational pathways work, OCCRL uses integrated methods and approaches that support institutional change through adoption and adaptation that is responsive to institutional contexts. OCCRL accomplishes its strategic direction and priorities through activities, research, and development in four core areas:

Equity-Driven Change: OCCRL promotes holistic approaches to bolster equitable engagement and outcomes across diverse student populations in high-quality academic programs and careers across the education pipeline.

Comprehensive P-20 Educational Pathways: OCCRL researchers employ culturally responsive and equity-centered approaches to studying and supporting comprehensive college and career pathways that include opportunities for students to pursue their immediate goals (basic skills, training, certificates, degrees) while providing them seamless opportunities for further education.

Transformative Leadership: OCCRL approaches change from a systemic viewpoint that encourages collaborative methods while facilitating meaningful change across programmatic and co-curricular aspects of the overall student experience. OCCRL provides instructional and administrative leadership coaching that builds individual and organizational capacity to address systemic racial barriers affecting students, actively promotes equity, and closes gaps in outcomes.

Public Engagement: OCCRL embraces public engagement and fosters two-way conversations on research, leadership, and practice that provides the foundation for equitable outcomes and focused improvements across institutional contexts.

Our Story

OCCRL was formed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1989 thanks to a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education, which went to the now-revamped Department of Vocational and Technical Education in the College of Education. OCCRL attracted funding soon after from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education in the U.S. Department of Education, which the College of Education was a consortium member of.

Focusing its agenda on community college education, OCCRL added funding from other federal and state government agencies during the next 25 years. Of note is the continuous funding from the Illinois Community College Board since the mid-1990s, which has provided research and development toward understanding and improving community college education in Illinois.

Dr. Debra Bragg led OCCRL's projects from the organization's inception through April 2015, securing more than $17 million in grants from numerous government and private funders. During this 25-year period, OCCRL supported more than 100 graduate research assistants who were pursuing master's degrees and doctoral degrees.

Through the years a litany of full-time researchers and faculty members have affiliated themselves with OCCRL, including Steven Aragon, Lorenzo Baber, Gianina Taylor Baker, Elisabeth Barnett, Carianne Bishop, Marisa Castellano, Mark Combs, Dan Cullen, Donna Dare, Carolyn Dornsife, Raina Dyer-Barr, Jeffrey Flesher, Heather FoxMatt GianiDon Hackmann, Tim Harmon, Natasha JankowskiAnn Jones, Sadya Khan, Catherine Kirby, Frankie Santos Laanan, Jane Loeb, Julia Panke Makela, Heather McCambly, Kathy Oertle, George Reese, Deborah Richie, William Reger, Collin RuudJason Taylor, Donna Tonini-LarkinAnjalé Welton, and Eboni Zamani-Gallaher.

Also of note is the late Barbara Townsend, a treasured collaborator of Dr. Bragg whom the former OCCRL director is forever grateful for. Bragg and Townsend co-authored numerous grant proposals and publications.

The breadth of research associated with OCCRL has been extensive from the start with a focus on studies of college access and completion leading to employment for underserved student populations. This research was steered by Dr. Bragg through 2015 and included career technical education and career pathway policies (U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Labor, and the Joyce Foundation), transfer education (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), transformative change of community college education (Lumina Foundation and Gates Foundation), and applied baccalaureate degrees (National Science Foundation and Lumina Foundation).

In addition, Dr. Bragg is the creator and initial principal investigator (PI) of Pathways to Results (Illinois Community College Board), an equity-focused program that works toward continuous improvement and has proliferated through the Illinois community college system and to many other states.

In April 2015, Dr. Eboni Zamani-Gallaher was named director of OCCRL. She is a professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership and an associate dean of the Graduate College who completed her Ph.D. at Illinois while working at OCCRL. After attaining her degree she held faculty positions at West Virginia University and Eastern Michigan University, where she was promoted to full professor and became a visionary and leader of the community college leadership graduate program.

Throughout her career, Zamani-Gallaher's scholarship has focused on adjustment and transition of marginalized collegians, transfer, access policies, equitable student outcomes, student development, and services at community colleges. As the director of OCCRL, she has steered work on dual-credit programming, college and career readiness, minority-serving community colleges, and STEM pathways.

Dr. Zamani-Gallaher has extended the scope of OCCRL relative to access, participation, and completion. She is the principal investigator for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant that is examining embedding equity into guided pathways programming projects, also referred to as Equity Conscious Community College Pathways (EC3P).

She is also the principal investigator for the Advancing Racial Justice and Equitable Outcomes in Community Colleges Institutes funded by the Lumina Foundation and two National Science Foundation grants that are funding her work on HSI Transfer and the Undergraduate STEM Pipeline at Two-year Hispanic Serving Institutions and Collaborative Research: Transitioning Learners to Calculus in Community Colleges (TLC3): Advancing Strategies for Success in STEM with colleagues Helen Burn, Vilma Mesa, and J. Luke Wood. Her leadership has been integral in continuing grants with the Illinois Community College Board, including research on STEM pathways at Illinois minority-serving community colleges, CTE apprenticeships, CTE equity, Illinois programming to improve program review, and student transitions via Pathways to Results (PTR).