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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.

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.

How to Select Retention Software

How to Select Retention Software

If you are supporting students in higher ed then you likely could benefit from one of the many solutions currently available.  A great retention solution will do a couple of critical things for student success:

  1. Get the right student information in the right hands at the right time
  2. Eliminate grunt work so your focus is on quality student support

Whether your first-year retention is 90% or 60%, student advising and engagement is vital to the health of a university.  You have a wide range of options to explore.  This article focuses on 5 things that should be on your list when considering a retention solution:

Cost:  The solution you select should more than pay for itself.  Determine a reasonable expectation for an increase in retention (whether its total enrollment, first year retention or a specified sub-population) and ensure the resulting tuition gain is significantly greater than the cost of the software.

Implementation:  I hear about system fatigue a lot.  IT teams are always overloaded.  Faculty needs a break from new system integrations.  Student support staff are comfortable with what the antiquated system they are currently using.  The more complex your solution, the greater impact on resources.  Select a solution that has minimal impact on your IT team and can train your staff in less than a day.

On-going Admin:  The more complex a retention solution the more on-going admin support and maintenance you will need.  When you hire or reallocate a part or full time individual as an on-going administrator, you have to include this in your overall cost.

Type of Partnership: Do you prefer a collaborative partner with higher ed expertise or would you prefer to be left alone with the software?  Many solutions out there will have you pay extra for the “consulting” portion.  A true collaborative partner will be just as invested in supporting the achievement of established retention targets without piling on extra fees.

Features:  It’s going to be hard to find a solution that meets every single one of your needs.  Go for the solution that has your essential components and choose a partner that is nimble enough to build the extra features you need down the road.

There are several options out there to enhance how your faculty and staff engage students.  Include faculty, student support staff and IT in your decision-making process.  They will thank you in the end.

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

 

Renew, Refocus, Revitalize…Retention

Renew, Refocus, Revitalize…Retention

As the saying goes, the only thing constant is change. While this continues to be true, we can also appreciate when things stay the same. As long as those “things” are adding to our lives in a positive way.  When change does happen, it is often given a title that typically has  “re” at the beginning. Essentially, we are revisiting the way we have once done something and changing it.

With this in mind the main focus of our team at Aviso Coaching continues to be the success of our partner institutions. This will remain the same, as we lead college and universities through renewing their team’s energy, refocusing their efforts into a unified early alert software system and revitalizing student success and degree completion on their campus. We encourage campuses to change daily, even in the smallest ways to best meet the needs of their student populations. Sometimes these are easy changes, while others take time and effort to incorporate. All the while we ensure each team is fully supported.  This is our story. We are passionate about student success and retention and remain firmly focused on these initiatives.

So while our team continues to support and encourage our partnering campuses to adjust when needed, we must do the same. Therefore, we have decided to move forward with a few key modifications.

First, we wanted to make sure we were telling our story in a way that portrayed who we are and where Aviso is going. Therefore, Aviso Coaching is now Aviso Retention. Why? We have grown quite a bit in the last few years, but the laser focus on retention, student success and degree completion remains the same. We feel that Aviso Retention better captures the overall impact of our solution and the value of our partnership.

Second, while we encourage our partnering campuses to stay on the forefront of innovation and student retention, we as the Aviso team need to do the same. Therefore, we have revitalized our logo to reflect this forward movement. The transition has already begun and will continue throughout the next few months.

The success of our partners and the students they serve continues to be our priority. We are thrilled to be transitioning to Aviso Retention and excited for the years to come. Cheers to continued quality and exciting innovation!

Please take time to check out our new website: Avisoretention.com

Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with the new and exciting things happening with our team!

Contact Us to learn more about our student centered retention initiatives!

Small Change….Big Impact

Small Change….Big Impact

After 30 years, a few of those years belaboring the decision, I decided to move from very blonde to very brown hair (my natural color). Now if you are reading this and immediately got annoyed, I promise this post has a valid objective.  Keep reading. While a part of me feels like I have somehow found myself in a witness protection program, what I am most surprised about, is how “hair” has guided a part of my identity, that now feels lost in translation. Well that’s foolish, you say. Hear me out.

The social dynamic of the change in color has been fascinating. I work in a shared space with other companies. While there are often exchanges of “Good Morning” or a quick smirk on the way to our designated spaces, that is really where the communication ends. Now, cue hair change. It is 10:00am. I have been at my desk for a little over 2 hours. The count is currently, seven. Seven people that I have only exchanged “hello smiles” with have now directly addressed me. The comments are ranging in niceties, but so far have been positive. (Who knows what they are actually thinking. I like to think it is all wonderful and gracious mental rhetoric, or even WOW, Stunning!) However, what I do find interesting is the very outward, noticeable change of the color of someone’s hair has created the opportunity or ability for individuals who may not have, engage with me (or about me for that matter). All seven of these professionals, I have never interacted with before. Even more interesting, I still do not know the names of at least four of them. While I am happy to meet new people, and engage (Be mindful, that is really the essential function of my job), I am also aware that they really don’t seem to mind what my name is, or what I do, but rather hair… only hair. I am also not offended by this at all. I am just surprise that anyone outside my immediate teammates even noticed. It is a big change, yet I am relatively new to this particular office setting. I suppose I wasn’t even sure that anyone outside of my particular office mates knew that I existed.

When thinking about a college setting, students often feel this same dynamic. Should Suzy Student decide to change a physical attribute, or simply looks tired, sad, or lost, do we notice? Do we engage or do we pretend to not see her, for fear of getting caught in what may be a loathsome conversation? While Suzy may or may not appreciate the acknowledgment of the difference or change in her demeanor, she will acquire a sense of satisfaction that she is not invisible. This sense of individualism has been a catalyst to many institutional tag lines. “Large School, Individual Attention”. We as educational professionals realize how these interactions are indicative to the ultimate success of college students. Acknowledging life in and out of the classroom is critical to our core competences and vital to retention efforts. However, with so many faces, so many names and often times so many physical differences, it can be almost impossible to catch everyone’s everything.

Now cue the campus advising and success coaching team. When applying for these positions, the job description should be just that. Success Coach A will be expected to know everyone’s everything. This however, is not limited to students, but faculty and staff as well. You will also need to be extremely proficient in putting out the proverbial fire at a moment’s notice. Finally, Good Luck! Small print: Your reports are due every week at 5, but we may ask for these numbers 10 times leading up to Friday, depending on who happens to ask for them.

Maneuvering through this dynamic is what a success coach does best. They thrive in it, actually. Hats off to you. Your work is noticed, acknowledged and you are not invisible, especially if you decide to change your hair color. Now get back to work, you have an unexpected team meeting in 5 minutes and your numbers need to be ready…ohhh and Suzy Student is waiting for you in your office. What does she want? She didn’t tell me, she only wants to talk you.

The Unknown Unknowns

The Unknown Unknowns

Last month I wrote about helping first-year students begin to speak the “language of college,” and in that discussion I was reminded of the many things we take for granted that students must know when they arrive, but don’t. Before doctors can treat an illness, they must first diagnose it, just as before any of us can solve a problem, we must first identify it. At times this can be relatively easy: if a patient walks into a hospital with a broken leg, well, he’s probably going to need a cast. But other problems are not so easy to diagnose.

The most difficult situation, of course, is when we don’t know what we don’t know. These unknown unknowns prevent us from even understanding where to start problem-solving, and this is the reality many of my students find themselves facing when they first walk in my door. So one of the first questions I always ask is, “why do YOU think you have ended up on academic probation or warning?” The answer is usually the most obvious one: “my grades weren’t very good.” I see this response as a portal, an entryway into a discussion that can go quite deep as students explore the real, foundational causes of their academic troubles.

Take Bryce, a student I began working with after his disastrous first semester at school. Bryce had come in as a freshman business major with grades good enough not to have been immediately placed in the Success Coaching program. However, his fall semester grades had been dismal. So when we met, I asked him the question: “why do YOU think your fall grades were what they were?” Bryce punted at first, but eventually he got around to what I already knew from talking to some of his professors. “Well, he finally admitted, “I guess I missed a lot of classes.” That was an understatement. According to my informal investigation, Bryce had simply not gone to pretty much any of his classes. Ever. This, of course, got us closer to the issue, but there were still layers upon layers yet to discover. Why hadn’t he gone to class?

The reasons why students make the decisions they do, of course, are varied and complex. Sometimes they are not even fully aware of why they do what they do, for late adolescence is a veritable cornucopia of unknown unknowns. Thankfully with Bryce, we eventually got to the bottom of it. It turns out that he had decided to major in business because he thought that would be the most effective way to help his family out financially once he graduated, but once he got into business courses, he found them both painfully boring and not at all well-suited to his skill set and strengths. The fact that he hated the classes caused him to lose motivation, and in the vacuum left behind crept in the fear and the shameful thought, “what if I just can’t hack it even if I wanted to?” So he didn’t go to class. He couldn’t go. And once he had missed enough class, the reality of his failure made finding a way out seem impossible.

None of this, of course, Bryce realized consciously while it was happening. He was too consumed by bigger, scarier questions: “If not this, then what? If not the future I planned, then what kind of future will take its place, especially if I’m not cut out for college?” But once we got to the root of it, once we diagnosed the problem, we were in a position to start fixing it. Soon we were having discussions about what Bryce really liked to do. What was he good at? What interested him? It turns out he had never really considered the idea that he could match his skills and passions with a college major. By the next week, Bryce had changed his major, and seemed to waltz into my office like a great weight had been taken off of him. He liked his new courses (except for the prerequisite math class that I reminded him everyone was suffering through just as he was), and even felt like he could contribute in class. Did he still have a pretty big mountain to climb given his first semester grades? Yep. But now Bryce felt set up for success instead of failure. And better than that, he had started to learn to be self-reflective when confronted with a problem.

It is skills like these- the ability to diagnose your own problems and even start to recognize patterns of behavior- that will be essential to a student’s success during and far beyond their college days. As success coaches, our primary job is to help students’ graduate, but if we can help them cultivate the skills that will last them a lifetime…it’s not a bad day at the office.

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

The Inner Critic of the Success Coaching Student

I’d like to make a confession. I cannot do a roll up.

A little clarification: a “roll up” is a Pilates exercise where, using only your abs, you go from lying flat on your back to sitting straight up with your legs out in front of you. And I cannot do one. I couldn’t do one a year ago, I can’t do one today, and I probably won’t be able to do one a month from now. So I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago in my Pilates class when I failed to do a rollup yet again. And, to be fair, I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry. Frustrated. Embarrassed. “You should be able to do this by now!” a certain voice I know well said. “This is pathetic!” it continued. “And look how much one-on-one time the teacher is giving you because of it. I bet everyone else is annoyed with you for hogging attention and slowing the class down!” Now, I don’t know if that is what the other students in the class were thinking, but I do know a thing or two about the voice speaking to me for, you see, it has lived with me a long time. It is my inner critic or, as I like to call it, simply “mean voice.” Mean voice loves to tell us that we’re not good enough or smart enough or strong enough. I’ve got one. You’ve got one. And you better believe that success coaching students have one.

My “mean voice” incident during Pilates class reminded me just how pernicious this inner critic can be, especially when a student is struggling to overcome real obstacles to their college goals. Mean voice is quick to take any small setback as proof that- “see? I was right! You can’t do it after all!” The problem comes when students are unable to see mean voice as just one of the contributors to the ever-convening city council meeting in all of our heads. When we see mean voice as simply “reality,” we don’t realize that there are other valid perspectives to consider.

I had a student a few years back whose academic struggles during her first semester at school seemed insurmountable. “I just can’t do the work,” she would tell me time and time again. And she was not wrong. But I also knew that she had come from a high school that had not prepared her very well for college.  Because few of us understand things outside our realm of experience, she didn’t realize how poorly her high school programs had served her. So when she got to college and found herself underwater, she just assumed it must be a fundamental problem with her own brain, with her mean voice always including a dangerous (and dangerously convincing) because at the end of the sentence. “You can’t do the work because you’re not smart enough,” it told her, when in reality she was fighting uphill against a lack of preparedness that was largely not her fault.

So how do any of us, including success students, deal with our mean voices? All but the few truly enlightened among us lack the power to completely eliminate them, so how do we live with these voices without giving them the power and influence they crave? The first step, I tell my students, is to recognize the voice for what it is: one perspective of many. Once you’ve recognized your mean voice, give it a good sizing up. That way, the next time you get a poor grade on a paper and that same old refrain comes along…”of course you failed! You always fail! This just confirms everything I’ve told you about how worthless you are.”…you can say, “Hey, Cool it, okay? I’ve heard this song before.”

Once you’ve quieted the mean voice, listen for the other voices in the room. In that space you might find Logic, who says, “well, we failed that one, but we’ve got to admit we didn’t study as much as we probably should have.” Or perhaps Gentle, who reminds us, “hey. This was a bad one, but this stuff is hard and we’re making progress, even if it’s slow.” You may even find Real Kindness in there somewhere, I tell them. And once Real Kindness’ voice is heard, you’re really on the road to positive change.

Transactional vs. Transformational

Transactional vs. Transformational

For many, February encompasses various important and historically significant days; for my family, February holds an additional, especially incomparable day. This particular day holds the weight of endless hours away from home, on the phone, late nights and countless conversations. It is known around the college coaching world as Signing Day. Every year on this day, future college athletes declare where they intend to spend the next few years of their life, and to which football staff they will entrust a significant amount of their college experience. This decision is often also linked to the potential opportunity to move beyond college football and play on Sundays.

When thinking about the interactions leading up to this day, it is critical that the relationship between an athlete and college coach has moved beyond “Hi, what is your name, and what would you like to major in?”.  The coach has to become an advisor, a confidant, an expert, and a friend. Often, this trusting relationship will also need to extend to other stakeholders in the athlete’s life. The buy-in from the entire support system is crucial.

These conversations must transition from a simple transaction to the idea that being with this team, this coach, and this institution will transform this athlete’s ability to be successful in whatever he/she decides to pursue after college. The same can be said for every student heading into their collegiate experience. As institutional professionals, are we simply performing transactions with our students? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that every interaction aids in transforming their future?

Our days can become overwhelming. When walking into our offices, we are immediately hit with reports, agendas, state mandates, and that same one or two students, who always seem to be waiting for us in the lobby.  Every moment can be multi-faceted. Knocks on the door are endless, and while our office’s uphold an “open-door” policy, the moments when you can close it, to take a breather (even if a breather means ensuring that reports are submitted on time) feels like a little bit of advising heaven.

We love our students and what we do. In fact, we are passionate about helping them, progress. It’s very likely that we, ourselves, had an impactful college professor or staff member who really made a difference in our college experience. That very experience is what made us want to work in higher education. When thinking about our own experiences, we can still name those staff or faculty members that made a difference. To dive deeper, when thinking about the interactions we had with these impactful people, often times, they transformed our thinking or experience. Too often, college students become accustomed to transactional communication in higher education. “Go to the registrar’s office and give them Document A. They will then send you to the business office to turn in Document A and give you Document B. Once you have Document B, go online and type in your user name and password so that you can sign-up for classes. If you have forgotten your user name or password, please call IT, and they may pick up.” During this process, do we ever ask our students anything other than their last name and student ID number?

While some of these transactions are imperative to their progress, the transformational conversations will be what leads to their success. Although those one, two (or fifteen) students who always seem to be waiting for us, can be a bit daunting, these same students are being transformed because of what their advisor, success coach, or faculty member is doing for their college experience. The same student who continued to wait outside your office to report unrelated information or change their schedule, just ONE more time, will also be transformed because of the support provided.

‘Good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.’

Light, R.J. (2001) Making the most of college. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Sarah Hood is the Client Success Manager for Aviso Coaching LLC, in Columbus, Ohio. She has played and instrumental role in the successful retention efforts for multiple collegiate campuses.  This experience has guided her to provide a platform for institutions and departments to voice their retention goals, establishing the first link to the Aviso team’s ability to assist in reaching and sustaining those endeavors.

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.