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The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

The Retention Dilemma with Graduate Programs

When you think about student attrition, is it ever in the context of graduate school?

Probably not, but you should.  Undergrad retention rates hover around 50% and the same goes for masters and doctoral students.

Colleges and Universities are more focused on their undergraduate attrition than what is happening in their graduate programs.   I had the fortunate circumstance of attending the Annual Meeting for the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools in early March (which, by the way, is a fantastic group of people) where I had conversations with several Deans of graduate programs spread from Maryland to Texas.  The conversations were overwhelmingly similar.  Each one sharing they would love to have a retention solution similar to what their undegraduate counterpart currently has, but they don’t have the student numbers in their grad program to justify the cost.

Let’s pause and think about this for a minute.  One particular institution comes to mind that has 20,000 undergrads and 4,000 graduate students.  If this institution is experiencing an overall attrition rate of 20% annually for both programs, then they are looking at losing 4000 undergrad and 800 graduate students.  Seems to make sense to focus on the larger number, but losing 800 graduate students results in a $7.2m loss in tuition revenue for this particular institution.

Through my discussions, the predominant reasons I am hearing their institutions are not investing in a retention solution are:

  • Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad
  • An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition
  • An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful full time employment

Let’s break these down…

Less Return on Investment when compared to undergrad

It’s hard to find numbers on loss in tuition revenue for graduate programs.  An Educational Policy Institute report shows a loss in tuition revenue for undergrad at $16.5B, so I’m guessing if graduate programs are experiencing a 50% attrition rate the financial loss there is still a staggering number.  The institution mentioned above would see an increase in tuition revenue of $0.5M with a 7% increase in retention.  An affordable solution would provide very strong return on investment.

An assumption that students who leave cannot handle the academic rigor, so we should allow for this natural attrition

A strong admissions department should be filtering out students who will struggle.  Of course, the expectation is rarely 100% retention and certainly a small population of students may struggle academically.  Most students admitted to graduate programs can meet and exceed the academic requirements, but life gets in the way.  When priorities shift and life intervenes, the performance drops.  It’s easy to point the finger at performance, but is that the true reason a student leaves their graduate program?  Identify these dips in performance quickly and then engage to uncover the real issue.

An assumption that some students leave because they’ve chosen a different career direction, which usually involves gainful employment

Students who drop of out graduate school are likely pulled away by life situations.  Families, health, career, finances, debt and self-confidence are key factors.  The latter factor there, self-confidence, is important to pay attention to.  In Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, she talks about the high number of people admitted to prestigious academic programs who experience imposter syndrome, which is basically a consistent feeling that they must have fooled the admissions folks to gain acceptance into their program.  She experienced the same thing herself as a grad student at Princeton, now she’s a best-selling author doing ground-breaking research in how people judge and influence each other.  My point here is that these are obstacles that graduate students can overcome.

There is an answer…  a practical and affordable retention solution can support the right students to persist to graduation.  A system that bolsters the work our professional and faculty advisors are doing to support students.  Being able to find and engage students who are at-risk is advantageous, but so is having a system that automatically recognizes key accomplishments and benchmarks.  The return on investing in a solution can add significant tuition revenue.  More important, it’s difficult to put a monetary value on the impact to the university and future of the student, as well.

I have to share that this topic is close to my heart.  I almost left graduate school myself.  I realized early on in my clinical psychology program that I was not interested in being a therapist.  Furthermore, I was presented with a fantastic job offer that would have been hard to refuse.  A faculty mentor showed me the value of finishing my program.  Looking back, I made exactly the right decision.

Aviso Retention provides analytics, software and expertise to increase student retention and engagement.  Click here to learn more.

Tis The Season.

Tis The Season.

Ready or not, the holiday season is here. However, if your anything like me, you ensure Thanksgiving is given its due respect and fight the urge to put up your Christmas tree until that Friday! While I am a sucker for a good Hallmark movie and holiday tune, those pumpkins are staying out on my doorstep until Thanksgiving has passed.

While we enjoy the parties, food and family, this season can also leave us needing a vacation from our vacation! Lots of travel, family obligations, and making sure that we are not over indulging as New Year’s resolutions are just around the corner. In addition to this chaos, there is often a financial burden that comes with holiday gift giving and making sure that we purchase the latest electronics or Hatchimals.  If you don’t know what that is…trust me, you are better for it.

With all of these moving parts, it can be hard to concentrate on the work before us. The end of the term is wrapping up, our grades are due and in order to feel like we can comfortably walk away for a few days, the last-minute details of projects that we have been working on, must get done. While we understand that this time of year can be stressful for ourselves and colleagues, it is important to remember, it can also be overwhelming for the students we serve.

For many of them, the holiday season means picking up a few shifts or working doubles to make sure they can provide for their families while continuing to try and keep up with their school work. Winter weather, health, and finances, just to name a few can suddenly become huge boulders preventing our students from moving forward. If you ask any success coach, academic advisor or faculty member, over half of their job is talking with students about matters outside of the classroom. Life hits hard and fast for all of us, yet for many of our students, taking refuge in our offices, even just for a few moments can be the peace they need to finish strong.

These moments make the difference in our retention rates, and heck they are nice for us too. Whether we are sharing stories about crazy shopping trips or burnt turkeys, these conversations with our students allow them to connect with us beyond the classroom. Student success often depends so much more on these transformational exchanges then making sure everyone is registered on time. Now registering on time is critical, yet if we don’t understand life outside the classroom, we are very likely to struggle helping our students inside of it. Simply sharing our anxieties of how to manage our time and get our kiddos to every holiday concert, can help our students feel less alone and a part of a family outside of their own. Coaching our students to finish strong, not freak out and take one step at a time can not only serve as good reminders for us, but also frankly guide them to graduation.

So, cheers to the holidays, our students and the few extra cookies that are waiting for us in the break room.

The Next Generation – Student Support

The Next Generation – Student Support

It can be difficult to remember exactly where and when you learned something. When a job is new, you are learning something new every day, but once you’ve been at it for awhile, you simply do what you know works without much thought about the process by which that wisdom was gained. Since I have been working as a success coach for more than a few years now, I thought I’d ask one of our first-year coaches, a woman named Ellen who had worked as a staff member at two other colleges prior to joining the team at my university, about her experience this year. What did she learn? What surprised her? What are some of the most crucial take-aways that will help her be an even better coach in year two? Here are some of her thoughts:

The most important theme Ellen kept coming back to again and again was that of variety in…well….variety of forms. Based on her work with mostly freshmen who were on either academic probation or warning, it became incredibly apparent to her the extent to which not all high schools are alike. There is a wide spectrum when it comes to academic rigor, even when you only look at college prep programs from school to school. A student with a 3.0 GPA from one area can be vastly more prepared than a student having graduated with the same GPA from a different school. However, Ellen was also surprised by how many of her students’ primary challenges were not academic at all, and she figured out that in order to address students with vastly different obstacles- from organization to motivation to family issues to mental health problems- she had to come up with as many strategies as there were barriers to a student’s success.

Ellen also learned things that will help her work more effectively with certain kinds of students. For example, she had not fully realized just how much of a student athlete’s time is dedicated to his or her sport, and what incredible organization and time management skills it takes to be both student and athlete at the college level. She also came to some interesting insights regarding international students, namely just how real and difficult culture shock can be to navigate.

Although one of the biggest lessons Ellen learned was there is no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to working with students, there were some commonalities. On the whole, she said, the challenges her students faced often stemmed from a lack of problem solving skills and support. Many of her freshmen were not used to making decisions for themselves or solving their own problems, and she found she nearly always had to give them a crash course in Problem Solving 101.  She also observed how quickly her students came to trust her and tell her what the problem really was and, for many, this trust was born from her students’ viewing her as a campus mom, a second mom, or the mom they never had. One of the truths Ellen discovered that I, too, find difficult is that, for many of the students who end up walking through our doors, the success coach is the only person in his or her life who supports them and always has their back.

At the end of our conversation, Ellen paused and said, “You know, I’ve worked at colleges before, but even so, I really experienced a learning curve this year.” I asked her what, if anything, was the main take-away. “I love being a success coach,” she said, “and I think if every school did this, we could raise graduation rates nationwide.”

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.

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

Creating a Success Coaching Program from the Ground Up

The other day I had the privilege of meeting with two women who work in the academic support center at our local community college. These women have been wanting to start a success coaching program for some time, believing that, especially on the community college level, where students have an even more diverse range of needs and challenges than at a typical four-year institution, a success coaching program could provide huge benefits to their students. We had a great conversation about how we launched the success coaching program at my university, how it works, and what we’ve learned in the years since its inception. I’d like to share a few of the highlights here.

SELLING THE PROGRAM

As we learned first-hand at my university, the reasons why a school needs or could benefit from a success coaching program are not always immediately apparent to administration, faculty and staff. Often, this is because many people simply don’t know what success coaching programs do. Students already have access to academic advisors, counselors, and tutors, they say. How would this be any different? Wouldn’t success coaches be at best redundant and at worst interlopers stepping on the toes of those who are already doing these jobs? In order to garner support for any nascent success coaching program, it is essential to communicate to faculty and staff that success coaches work as partners with professors, coaches, and counselors, and that the primary job of a success coach is to act as a singular point person who helps students pinpoint and navigate any challenges that might arise, academic or otherwise. Success coaches also act as mentors and role models to students, some of whom have few (if any) others to look to. Sure, some students find mentor/mentee relationships with a particular professor or coach, and those relationships can be incredibly gratifying, but not all students are so lucky.

Perhaps the most persuasive way to get a university on board when starting a success coaching program is simply to share the numbers. Our success coaching program has unequivocally improved retention while vastly reducing the numbers of students who have been dismissed from the university. In fact, the retention rates of students in our success coaching program, who are statistically most at risk of dropping out or being dismissed, are just as good or better than those of the general population. Math! She tells no lies.

HIRING

Just as most organizations thrive or fail on the effectiveness of their human resources, so it is with success coaching programs. Hiring the right people is essential, and over the years we have found a few types of people who generally make the best coaches. Probably the largest percentage of our coaches are retired educators, but that is not the only model that seems to work. We have hired coaches from the business world who have experience mentoring others, former social workers, HR directors, and people who have spent time in student affairs. Regardless of their career origins, all of our best coaches seem to have one thing in common: experience building one-on-one relationships which focus on the needs of others.

GIVING THE PROGRAM A MISSION

Finally, a successful success coaching program must have a clear understanding of the job at hand. We are not professors. We are not counselors. We are sounding boards, detectives, friends and, more than anything, facilitators. We connect students to the resources they need to succeed, for we know that their success helps not just the students themselves but all of us. The more well-educated our workforce and citizenry, the better off we all are, and success coaches know that our primary goal is to help facilitate that success in any way we can.

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.