It has been well documented in recent years that women’s college graduation rates have started to outpace those of their male counterparts. In addition, more women than men are now going on to earn masters and post-doctoral degrees. There is a lot of debate about why this is and what we can do to close the disparity, but part of the solution certainly involves giving extra aid to struggling male undergraduates, especially in their first years of college.
Of the 80 students in our success coaching program this semester, more than 60 are male. Perhaps it’s that some of these students are a little less mature when they arrive, perhaps it takes male students a little longer to settle in socially than females, or perhaps, as can be the case of some of the student athletes I’ve worked with, it takes them awhile to see a college degree as a pathway to success rather than a burdensome prerequisite to NCAA eligibility. (While our female athletes can also get stuck in this mindset, most of them realize that, due to the reduced number of opportunities in professional women’s sports, they can’t necessarily count on “going pro” as Plan A.)
So how do we most effectively serve male students who are struggling? The good news is that, of all demographics, male students have been found to respond particularly well to success coaching. A study published in 2011 by Rachel Baker and Dr. Eric Bettinger of Stanford University found that while success coaching can benefit both male and female students, there is evidence to suggest that its effect is even larger for males.
One thing that has been interesting in our own program is that, while most of our students are male, most of our success coaches are female. We have and have had male coaches, but in general, it seems the job itself as well as its part-time employment status attracts a primarily female pool of former teachers and social workers. This, of course, is not the only model of a great success coach, but we find that most of our male students relate very well to our largely female staff. Who knows to what extent, but it also seems that age may be a factor, as many of our success coaches are the age of the mothers and/or grandmothers of our students. I always smile when I see a student burst into his success coach’s office to announce that he’s gotten an A on an exam with the “walls down” exuberance reserved only for certain people in his life.
I have noticed that my male students respond particularly well to a mix of maternal care and hard-nosed pushing. You’ve got to prove to a student that you care about him as a person before you can lay down the law, but once you have established mutual trust and respect, male students seem to really rise to the occasion the tougher you are on them. In fact, I’ve had a number of former students stop in my office or contact me to thank for me for “not letting them get away with anything.” It may seem cliché, but male students really do seem to excel when you outline what’s expected of them in clear terms and then push them hard to get it done.
Recently, a group of Navy Seals did a team-building workshop with our football team. One of my students, a defensive lineman who has a particularly difficult course load this semester, told me beforehand that the training was likely to be brutal. “You’re alive!” I exclaimed when he walked into my office for our next meeting. “Barely,” he replied smiling. I asked him what he had learned that might apply to his academic work. “I learned that I have the ability to ‘gut out’ just about anything,” he said. “There will be an end to this semester; until then, I just have to access that ability to be strong, keep going, and get it done.”
Yes Grasshopper, I thought, now you are catching on.
Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007. The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.