Why, When, and How to Conduct Needs Assessments

Why, When, and How to Conduct Needs Assessments

In this post, we will address the reasons for conducting needs assessments for any college access program. We’ll look at this from several angles to explain why, when, and how should needs assessments be done. First, let’s define what we consider a needs assessment.

Definition: a needs assessment is a process of identifying gaps between the current condition and what is expected to be achieved.

For example, GEAR UP is aimed at increasing high school graduation and college-going rates, so we would want to know what the current rates are and what target rates we expect to achieve after implementing the program

In other words, we want to know what problems exist at a school or district level that our program will address to improve the situation.


An educational equity program can only be successful when its goals are clearly outlined, objectives are specified, and the benchmarks are set to guide the staff throughout the program implementation. To identify the areas that need the most attention to achieve the final goals and objectives, programs should conduct needs assessments.


A needs assessment is not an evaluation as it is conducted before the start of a program to guide and plan its activities. Thus, there are different types of needs assessments depending on the timeline of a program.


To address the needs section of a GEAR UP or TRIO program proposal, we research all existing data sources, specifically school district websites, district and school-level reports, climate surveys, and available data collections of the local benchmarks and indicators.

In our example with a district-wide GEAR UP grant, we look for persistence rates, graduation rates, and postsecondary enrollment rates over three years to detect the trends in the district overall and the target schools and compare those to the state and/or national data. After revealing the general trends, we look at the demographic composition of the students to see if there are any differences to address. The more detailed data is analyzed the better it will look in the proposal.

Before unfolding the program, additional needs assessments can help identify the areas that need the most emphasis for successful program implementation. For example, when starting a new GEAR UP grant in a large urban school district, we can conduct needs assessments in all schools involved in the program.

The assessments can be done in the form of focus group interviews with the building administrators and GEAR UP staff. The purpose of this assessment is to learn more about each building's situation, concerns, and expectations of the program. The following questions can guide such discussion:

  • What are the strengths of your building?
  • What are the barriers/challenges within your building?
  • Are there unique student populations within your building?
  • How does your building support or promote college readiness?
  • Are there current interventions and/or programs in place?
  • How do you see GEAR UP staff supporting the academic and/or behavioral development of your students?
  • What does family engagement and involvement look like in your building, community, and neighborhood?
  • Are there current family-school partnerships, interventions, or collaborations in place now that GEAR UP could connect with?
  • What areas of professional development and/or training opportunities do you feel your teachers would benefit from most?

Analysis of the responses will greatly help in shaping the program overall and addressing the needs of each building accordingly. It may sound time-consuming, but it is worth doing it. A thorough analysis of the needs will allow the most efficient allocation of resources to close the gaps in the areas identified by the program. 

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Contributed By Nadia Kardash

Nadzeya (Nadia) Kardash, Ph.D., is an Associate Researcher with the Research, Evaluation & Dissemination Department in the Center for Educational Opportunity Programs. She currently conducts research and evaluation of the CEOP’s federally funded college access programs including GEAR UP, TRIO, and other college access programs. 

Follow @CEOPmedia on Twitter to learn more about how our Research, Evaluation, and Dissemination team leverages data and strategic dissemination to improve program outcomes while improving the visibility of college access programs.