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Is Your Title III Grant Money Working Hard Enough for Your Institution?

Is Your Title III Grant Money Working Hard Enough for Your Institution?

It’s a competition that happens every two years, or when department of education determines there is enough Title III funds.  The chance to be awarded a 5-year grant that is estimated between $400,000 and $450,000.  The grant is intended to strengthen institutions by supporting them to become more self-sufficient.  The money is to be used to expand capacity to serve low-income students and improve and strengthen academic quality, institutional management and fiscal stability.  Applications were due mid-April and institutions will learn if they have received the grant in mid-July.  There is close to $3.7M estimated available for this year’s highly competitive competition amongst a group of institutions who are all in need.

Once awarded, the competition heats up internally.  According to the Title III Grant website, funds awarded can be used for one or more of the following activities:

  • Scientific or laboratory equipment
  • Improving classrooms and facilities
  • Faculty support and development
  • Development and improvement of academic programs
  • Purchase of library books, periodicals, and other educational materials
  • Tutoring, counseling, and student service programs designed to improve academic success
  • Strengthening funds and administrative management
  • Establishing or improving an endowment fund
  • Creating or improving distance learning

I have focused largely on the student service side of the house for many years.  Institutions are hungry for Title III funds to support student success and retention.  The cost to acquire a student is substantial, but then once enrolled paper-based processes and sub-par systems create inefficiency and confusion.  As a result, students may not receive the support they need and they leave the institution as a result.

I have had the fortunate experience of observing many institutions and how they approach utilizing Title III funds.  There are a few who really approach this carefully and their approach is pretty similar.

  • Establish a 5-year plan
  • Identify technology or other solutions that support achieving these institutional objectives
  • Implement the technology or other solution successfully
  • Execute and manage like you have managed nothing before
  • Measure and document outcomes

Establish a 5-year Plan

Your team has applied and now after sweating it out waiting for results, your institution has received Title III funding.  What happens now?  All departments want a piece of the pie.  I have seen some strong roadmap with detailed, measurable outcomes after 5 years.  While you may come across progressive technology, if it is not aligned with your institution’s goals and objectives it is likely a poor investment.  It is also a good idea to involve as many as you can in the process while balancing progress through multiple opinions.  When implementation meets execution your funds will start working for you.

Identify Solutions that Support Achieving these Institutional Objectives

This is a critical process.  There are so many solutions out there and they each have their unique approach and set of features.  I have noticed a strong inclination to select solutions from current technology on campus, such as the existing Student Information System.  Michael Mathews, CIO and AVP for Technology and Innovation at Oral Roberts University, wrote an article in May 2017 titled “The Student Information System Dilemma.”  He talks about the SIS industry and the confusion being created.  He states, “As CIO’s, we are called to get into the digital era and lead revenue-generation efforts on campuses.”  Take this opportunity of awarded grant funding and explore what is out there.  These are big decisions and require a methodical approach to ensure the right solution is selected.

Implement Successfully

Once you have invested in the latest technology that is aligned with your 5-year plan, it is time to start the process of full integration.  This typically requires a culture change and certainly involves a new workflow.  Involve as many as possible.  Generate a level of enthusiasm about the new technology and set clear expectations for utilization.

Execute and Manage (like you have managed nothing before)

Change takes time and a good solution will provide the support and expertise to optimize usage.  It is important to realize that this takes a tremendous amount of work.  That being said, we should work really hard for our students.  As an example, it is not easy to move the needle on graduation rates.  There are some fantastic solutions out there that will provide the necessary increases.  The hard work that faculty and student support staff put into full utilization will lead to more students with a degree or certificate in hand.  We are in the business of changing lives.

Measure and Document Outcomes

There are published expectations for program-wide performance measures.  They center on year over year retention rates and graduation rates.  More important, the new solution being implemented should provide support in creating a baseline and measuring progress over time.  Adjustments should be made when falling short of expectations.  Publish your results as soon as possible so that faculty and staff can directly see the fruits of their effort.

You know your Title III funds are working hard enough for your institution when investments have been made in solutions that allow faculty and student support staff to enhance how they educate and support students.  These solutions result in measurable outcomes, namely increased retention and graduation rates.  Student outcomes are certainly the primary focus, but it is also important to consider the residual impact.  Such as, the ability to attract and retain top talent and energizing faculty and staff by providing innovation and technology.

Institutions that entered the Title III Grant competition are eagerly awaiting word.  The maximum award is $450,000.  This can go quickly.  With a methodical approach to selecting new solutions and technology, it is possible to impact several areas within the university.  If you are a fortunate winner, there is some pretty innovative technology out there just waiting to make a splash at your institution.

Aviso Retention provides software and predictive analytics to increase student success and retention.  Click here to learn more.

Student Advising Models and Guided Pathways

Student Advising Models and Guided Pathways

“Guided Pathways” is the buzz phrase in higher ed these days.  Data is showing how a guided pathway’s solution impacts student success and graduation rates, especially at community colleges.  A study by Davis Jenkins and Sung-Woo Cho that was released in 2012 showed more than half of students who entered a program in their first year earned a credential or transferred within 5 years.  For students who did not enter a program until their 3rd year, the success rate was about 20%.

The concept of guided pathways makes a lot of sense.  It’s pretty amazing how often a student will register for a class that does not advance them closer to their academic goals, thus using up precious financial aid.  That being said, it’s a lot of work for an institution to take on.  In this case, it literally takes the entire village.

A guided pathway solution can still allow for customization of course schedules by way of academic plans with default choices.  There are several other benefits in shifting specific programs to a guided pathways route, including:

  • An increase in completion rates through enhanced structure and support for students
  • Optimization of the use of financial aid
  • Defining and assessing learning outcomes for entire programs
  • Faculty working together to create instructional program coherence
  • Students seeing the big picture of their program and how individual components lead to achieving their goals

For this model to be successful, there must be a shift in the overall student support network.  The American Association of Community Colleges states that the guided pathways redesign model should be built on three design principles:

  • Institutions must pay attention to the entire student experience, not just a segment of it
  • This is not an isolated solution in a long list of reforms, rather an opportunity to unify a variety of reform elements
  • Redesign process starts with the end-goal in mind (ie. employment) and then works backward to map out a program

My intention here is to focus on the student service component of the entire ecosystem.  From a student advising perspective, a guided pathways approach elevates the precision needed by student support services.  It’s critical that student services evolve with the guided pathways model.  Below are some key ingredients to consider:

  • Ability to closely monitor student academic plans
  • Automatic alerts that are triggered the minute a student falls off plan
  • Advisors and faculty can intervene early as at-risk indicators identify students who could potentially fail critical courses
  • Advisors and faculty work closely together to monitor and support student progress
  • Students can monitor their progress towards achieving their academic goals

Aviso is a turnkey solution that provides academic planning to support guided pathways, coupled with predictive analytics and an engagement platform that easily places a student’s challenges and achievements right in front of student support staff.  Rather than a reactive and transactional student environment, the intention is for advisors and faculty to focus on measuring outcomes and continuing to fine tune the guided pathways ecosystem.  If you aren’t doing this already, consider conducting a pilot to observe the impact yourself.

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

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.

Is Technology replacing Advising?

Is Technology replacing Advising?

According to MarketWatch, by 2035 there will be 2.7bn students worldwide and in order to meet this demand we would need to build two universities per day over the next 20 years.  Couple this growth with tightening budgets in higher education and cuts have to occur somewhere.  Are you currently experiencing this in student services on your campus?

MarketWatch also indicates that EdTech will be a $252bn industry by 2020.  We can register students without a human interaction.  Students can get career or academic advice through search engines and phone apps.  It’s the Big Bang of EdTech, but if technology slowly replaces advising our retention crisis will only deepen.

Advising through technology with no human contact is largely transactional.  The truth is that many students would still achieve their academic goals with this type of advising.  However, we all know students vary by college and university and a majority of them require an interpersonal connection.

On the surface, computers are unable to replace the value of human interaction.

When you look a little bit deeper, we see that individuals seek out advising and student support roles because they care about people and this is their opportunity to shape the lives of others.

At the core, we have students who are facing new and unique challenges every day and require support from an actual person who is trained to drive their college experience.

The trick is providing technology that allows front-line student support to do their job effectively and efficiently.  Don’t replace technology with advising, rather provide smarter tools so advisors can do what they love.  The question becomes not, “Is technology replacing advising,” rather, “Which technology is ideal for my staff to effectively support students?”

If you value that human interaction on the advising front, then work to align a technology solution with campus culture, student success initiatives and the needs of your students.

Select technology that reflects campus culture.  You can purchase a wide range of data analytic products.  Deciding upon a complex solution without a campus culture to match and you could end up with superfluous data.

Align your student success initiatives with a retention solution.  Technology should mirror the student success initiatives you have or want to put into place.

Align technology with the needs of your students.  Institutions serve different types of students and it’s important to ensure the data that you are gathering and utilizing to engage students is most pertinent to your institution.

Student advising can be incredibly rewarding.  Connecting the dots for a student and working to constantly connect their hard work to the value of a degree and their future is necessary.  These conversations can happen through careful strategy and planning.  In other words, retention technology should allow you the time to think about how you will advance your students rather than trying to figure out who actually needs your support.

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

Six Steps to Impacting First-Year Retention Now

Six Steps to Impacting First-Year Retention Now

The “first-year experience” is a hot topic in higher ed.  If you are focused on new student fall to fall retention, you are entering a critical time.  Most obstacles and doubts have likely surfaced by now and in the spring term they will start to cement.  Missing home, program of study, social integration and finances are just some factors that come into play.  Reflecting on the fall term and identifying the predominant obstacles will lead to more effective student support and increased persistence.

I have consistently found year after year that an entering cohort of students has its own personality.  Meaning, each cohort has their own unique characteristics.  This results in shifting strengths and challenges your students face.  I love this aspect of student retention – it keeps you on your toes.  Considering that fall cohorts are typically the largest of the year, it’s valuable to hone in on the trends that are impacting student success for that cohort.  As you dive into the spring term, modifying your support to meet those needs can be highly advantageous.

Here are 6 steps to impact first year retention:

  1. Look at trends in obstacles students are facing
  2. Identify common themes
  3. Shift resources to meet student challenges
  4. Collaborate and gain alignment on strategies to support students
  5. Share tools and approaches that have worked to help students overcome obstacles
  6. Identify the students who are facing these obstacles quickly

Look for trends in obstacles students are facing.  Discuss as a group what you are observing with your students while also pulling any quantitative data available.

Identify common themes.  Document 3 to 5 barriers keeping the themes student-focused (meaning, don’t blame the football team’s poor season).

Shift resources to meet student challenges.  Ensure that the size of the team or department is commensurate with the number of students who need support.

Collaborate and gain alignment on strategies to support students.  Utilize the collective wisdom of your team to document how to approach and navigate through your common themes.

Share tools and approaches that have worked to help students overcome obstacles.  If an approach doesn’t work, don’t give up.  It often takes a couple of times before you get it down.  Celebrate wins and publicize effective strategies.

Identify the students who are facing these obstacles quickly.  The best time to build skills and hone a student’s attitude is when they are face to face with their challenge.

If you’re lucky, a student will sit down with an instructor, advisor, coach or support staff and clearly articulate the concerns on their mind.  But don’t count on this to happen.  Engage, listen and poke around to flush out potential barriers to year two.  You’re the expert who can provide coaching and make the difference between a student achieving their academic goals or not.  Believe that you have the ability to make that difference and you will!!

Aviso provides software and analytics to increase student success and retention.  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.

Great Conference…Now What?

Great Conference…Now What?

If you work in Higher Education, it is fairly plausible you have attended a conference (or considered doing so) in the past few weeks. It seems that “conference season” generally happens between the months of September and November. While there are a few outliers in April and others, a vast majority of sessions happen in this time period.

If your anything like me, conferences can be a bit overwhelming. An endless amount of ideas, and practices are shared. Some you hear and think “yes, we could absolutely mimic that on our campus!” Others seem a far cry of what is plausible considering the resources available. So much information can often paralyze us with indecision. Where do I start? How can I even try this?

When arriving to the conference and hearing the different ideas and fellow campus success stories, we get excited about where our team can go with retention, graduation and student success. Stories of how campuses have created and fostered growth, persistence and graduation rates are encouraging. We are re-charged and refocused, heading back to our perspective campuses ready to tackle the next student crisis with a renewed sense of purpose! The weeks that follow conferences are also met with the same road blocks, lack of budgets and students who just don’t seem to share our passion for their success.

I received great direction from a former Vice President of Student Services I once worked for. She simply said, at the end of each day and the conference in general, write down all your thoughts and everything you have learned. Make a list of 10 actionable items, reviewing the list a few times and narrowing that same list down to three initiatives. Once those three items have been identified, bring those items to me (or a supervisor) and we can develop a plan together in an effort to implement those on campus. This was huge. This did 2 things. Provided a plan of attack for the influx of information and prevented me from getting so overwhelmed and simply doing nothing at all!

This process is also true for the students that we serve. Its exciting to talk about graduation and career plans with students. They get excited too, thinking of all the possibilities ahead of them! However, this is quickly followed by all the work that goes into obtaining a degree or certification and that can be overwhelming.

Similar to the coaching my former Vice President gave to me, it’s critical we acknowledge our students go through this same process. Intrusively advising them through the work that is ahead and how to effectively plan and succeed is critical to their persistence. College and all that encompasses the process is exciting, yet overwhelming. However, if a student has a success coach, academic adviser or faculty member who is able to assist them in breaking down the process into manageable milestones, graduation will inherently follow. Accomplishing a test, class, term and year is a huge success in itself for many of our students. Let’s celebrate and appreciate those milestones and prevent them from feeling the overwhelming thought of the journey ahead.

Relationship Retention

Relationship Retention

Okay, perhaps this is my Andy Rooney moment (and perhaps that reference alone dates me), but it seems like these days everyone is falling head over heels for Big Data. Algorithms will help us all lose weight and find a mate! We count on apps to help us walk more and sleep better! And when we talk about college retention, we flock right to the numbers and conclude that we think we know everything that we need to know. Not that data isn’t very powerful, in fact, it can assist in letting us know how to direct our retention efforts most effectively.  However, if our teams don’t have the appropriate training, it can also mask the more complex, more nuanced, dare I say more human factors that can make the difference between a student graduating college and dropping or failing out.

Today I talked to a fellow success coach, and she reminded me just how relationships- that bonding between a student and the peers, professors, mentors, and coaches he or she finds in his or her college environment- can influence retention. Most of the time, it turns out, relationships are the whole ball of wax. Sure, there are students who cannot academically swim in college waters, but these students number far fewer than those who do not graduate for other reasons. For example, the success coach with whom I spoke today told me of a football player named Oscar, she had been working with since his freshman year. That year, he had been a star prospect but had gotten injured in the second game of the season. He was red-shirted and could start anew the next year, but for the rest of that year he found himself at sea- stripped of the structure of an athlete’s life as well as the meaning and satisfaction he found in doing something he loved. Add to that the fact that he was homesick and you can see how, amidst such circumstances, many students like Oscar would go home. Fortunately, he had his success coach to help him get through the year. Bring his grades up. Begin to see himself as more than just a football player.

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Oscar’s grades were good enough to get him off of academic warning, so he no longer needed to regularly report to a success coach. He was healthy and back on the team, and everything looked like it was coming right around…until the third football game of the season, when Oscar was injured again. The next morning, his first call was to his success coach.

Success coaches aren’t the only people who can mentor students and help them stay in school when so many factors seem to be pulling them farther away. But Oscar’s story is a reminder that retention is all about relationships. When students feel like they belong somewhere- when they encounter people on a daily basis who really see them- when they know that at least one person in this brave new world is always in their corner- they are more likely to endure the difficulties and disappointments that can accompany any great endeavor.

The Language of College

The Language of College

“How would you like your change?” the woman at the check-out asked me, but all I heard was, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?”  Which made sense, since the grocery store I happened to be patronizing at the time was in Lisbon, Portugal, but unfortunately for me, I don’t speak Portuguese. This brief encounter (and many like it) in a country where I didn’t speak the language reminded me that the freshmen who will walk into my office in a few weeks and I are not so different. It reminded me that college is a language. And if you don’t speak the language, even the most basic acts can seem like insurmountable obstacles.

So how do we help students become fluent in the language of college? I find that a good place to start is, well, actual language. Acronyms, for example. We can forget that when we say, “you just need to make sure you have filed your FAFSA and go to the FAS office on north campus right between SPAC and the PLEX!” an incoming freshman may hear, “como você gostaria que sua mudança?” (You’ll know by the deer-in-headlights look similar to the one I gave the Portuguese cashier.) That’s why one of the first things I do with new freshmen is go over acronyms, even the most basic, seemingly no-brainer ones. (I learned this when I began working with a student who did not know what a GPA was nor how one was determined.) In addition to learning the names of the “whos” and “whats” on campus, we will often explore the “wheres” together. And it’s amazing what a little familiarity will do. Even if students know where something like the financial aid office or tutoring center is, and even after you assure them that the people working inside are regular humans without claws or fangs or malevolent intent, many won’t feel comfortable going in for the first time on their own. So we take a little field trip, and I introduce them to the people that can help get them the resources they need. Suddenly, what seemed daunting and strange is a gathering of fast friends, and now the student is way more likely to be able to follow up on his or her own. They’re not fluent yet, but they’re starting to speak “conversational college.”

Which is good because they’re gonna need it. They are going to need to engage in conversations of all kinds- with registrars, bursars, tutors, career counselors and, most importantly, professors. And this, once again, can be scary for a new student. (And I get it. I may have managed to eke out an “obrigada,” or “thank you,” to the Portuguese cashier, but I didn’t sing her the national anthem!) Again, a little familiarity is key. Often the issue is that even when students muster up the courage to talk to a professor or administrator, they don’t know what to say. So we role play. If they ask me as the mock professor, “I don’t understand this,” I encourage them to get specific. What exactly don’t they understand? If they have questions about a financial aid form, we break it down until they understand exactly what they need. We talk it out until they are comfortable asking the questions they need to ask, and that’s one more step toward fluency.

As with learning any language, it’s all about practice. And we are much more likelier to practice something once we see we are making some headway. That’s my job. To help a new student get to that first breakthrough where he or she realizes…hey — now I know how to ask for my change!

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.

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

Good Cop, Bad Cop in Student Support

There are situations in life that require us to make carefully considered decisions about tactics. Whether you’re dealing with your boss, your child, or the TSA agent who seems to have a real problem with the amount of shampoo you’ve chosen to bring on an airplane, we are daily answering the question (whether consciously or not), “do I more effectively get what  I want if I play good cop…or bad cop?” As a success coach, I know this dilemma all too well, for most of my students need me to be both at different times. Learning how to become a master of the good cop/bad cop routine is an art, and I don’t always get it right. However, for the most part, I am able to make those decisions by synthesizing both the micro and the macro; in other words, I pay attention to both to the specific circumstances of the present moment and larger patterns of behavior.

Griffin is a student of mine who just finished his sophomore year. While most of my students who find themselves in academic trouble are glad to finally shed the burden of trying to pretend like they’ve been on top of it all along, Griffin resisted letting go of the façade. The reasons for his situation were either someone else’s fault or something that he now had totally under his control. Any “bad cop” energy I tried to put forth was met with defensiveness and digging in. There was simply no way he was going to do it any other way than his own, I soon discovered, so I gently opened the door and let good cop in. Would he like a cup of coffee? So sorry we even had to bring him down to the station at all….there are just a few, minor things we need his help with. For one…where was he on the night in question? I let Griffin try doing it his way for awhile, and when we would meet, I let him discover the ways in which that plan was not working as well as he had hoped. I treated it as an intriguing experiment, the way a math teacher might respond to a student who was clearly going about a problem the wrong way. “Oh, what an interesting way to think about doing it! Can you show me step by step how you plan to solve the problem your way?” Then, you slowly watch as the student himself figures out that his way is leading him to the wrong solution. “I’m glad you showed me that. That was a really out-of-the-box way to think about the problem, but I think we now both see that it needs tweaking. Let me show you another way we might approach it…” Manipulation? Only if you truly refuse to consider that the student may indeed prevail doing it the way you see as “wrong.” Perhaps Griffin would be the first student ever to ace a class by never showing up and not turning in any work! In a universe full of infinite possibility, I couldn’t say that it was impossible, right?  And it was perhaps because of this openness on my part that Griffin eventually let me show him other ways to approach the problem.

Tim, however, needed a different strategy. Tim needed a drill sergeant combined with a mom who does not put up with nonsense. Tim needed a bad cop. Tim was one of those students who was always looking for a loophole, a soft spot, a chink in the wall through which he could tunnel his way out. And Tim was pretty good at finding them. He had gotten things past adults all his life- sometimes due to privilege and sometimes due to sheer will- and he came to college believing that a few well-placed excuses combined with an innocent, “aw-shucks” attitude would allow him to coast through university just as he had high school. So, I admit, it must have surprised him when I called him on his b.s. However, much as seems to be the case with your average criminal mastermind on  Law & Order, Tim came to respect me and actually listen to me precisely because I had seen through his act.

Most students need both bad cop and good cop from time to time, as well as a variety of other things. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of my job is figuring out what tactic will get through to the student most effectively. Sometimes I follow my well-trained instincts; sometimes, it still takes a great deal of trial and error to figure it out. But most importantly, I remind myself that one size does not fit all. My best decisions are always made when I put in the time to really get to know the person staring back at me from the other side of my desk. Only then can I most accurately discern when to convince my student that her accomplice has already spilled the beans in the other interrogation room…and when to offer her a cup of coffee. 

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.