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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.

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.

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

Online Success Coaches: Experiences of an Online Success Coach

The following profiles are culled from the experiences of online success coach Deana Brown. She and I sat down awhile ago to chat about her experiences in the job, and she told me about some of her most memorable students.

“Tamara was a single mother in her mid-20s who worked as a cashier at a big box store. Her profile was far from unique- she and most of the people she knew were high school graduates (and some drop-outs) who had spent the years since starting to raise children while working in largely minimum-wage “survival jobs.” But Tamara had bigger ambitions. She wanted to be a judge some day, and that dream is what brought her into my life as an online success coach working with people trying to get their associates’ degrees. Tamara’s goals were commendable but her first semester work had been less so, and when she and I began working together she was on academic probation. Like many “first-in-the-family” college students, Tamara didn’t have a lot of experience navigating some of the challenges of college life (online or off): time management, study skills, and effective communication with professors. Add to that the fact that a lot of the learning in online classes is, for the most part, self-generated, and it’s easy to see why these students can find themselves falling behind. Tamara was exceptionally bright, but earning a college degree while also working full-time and raising a son is already difficult without these extra roadblocks. So, with Tamara, our primary job was one of planning. Each week, when Tamara would get her work schedule for the week ahead, we would carve out time for schoolwork. Could she spend a little time reading that online lecture before she left to pick up her son from school? Could she use the momentum created by helping him with his homework to do some of her own afterwards? We also talked about how to plan ahead. If a paper is due on Friday and you plan to begin it Thursday afternoon, what happens if you hit a snag and need clarification from the professor? There is generally a 24-48hr response delay for professor emails, and by then it would be too late to get your question answered before the paper is due. Within a semester, Tamara was not only set to get off academic probation but also she was making straight As.”

“Mark was a federal corrections officer in his 40s. He had worked as a guard as well as in administrative management at the prison for over a decade, and it was clear he had been shaped by the culture. Now working towards getting a degree in criminal justice online, he talked and wrote like someone for whom communication was all about economy and power. Managers and guards, he explained to me, spoke aggressively and without mincing words to inmates, but they also used basically the same kind of language with one another. Unfortunately, this presented Mark with some challenges when it came to communicating effectively with fellow students and professors in his online courses. Mark’s aggressive writing style, combined with the fact that it is already naturally difficult to convey tone and intention in written communication anyway, meant that many of Mark’s communications came across as angry demands. So we worked on how to approach people politely and effectively through text. There was the classic list of do’s and don’ts: don’t write in all caps, make good choices about punctuation, don’t begin emails with “So….,” as in- “So…I need this thing from you and you need to give it to me!” But we also talked more in-depth about the reasons why this type of communication is so much more effective not just in an academic environment but in a professional one. If every time you hit a roadblock you get angry and lash out, you are far less likely, in the end, to move up into greater positions of power and responsibility.”

These profiles demonstrate something we already know- that no two students are exactly alike. There are as many unique stories as there are students, which is why it’s important for success coaches to have as many tools at their disposal as possible. However, if there is one unifying piece of advice Deana would give to a new success coach on his or her first day, it’s this: “Listen carefully and take notes. This can take great patience sometimes, but before you try to jump to conclusions or provide solutions, make sure you take in their entire story. Then work together to make a plan, for if students are invested in the process of discovering for themselves what they need and how to get it, they will be more invested and motivated towards their own success.”

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.

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

Online Success Coaches: Providing Community and Guidance for Online Students

I recently spoke with a woman who works as a success coach exclusively for students who are getting their degrees online. We discussed the similarities and differences in our jobs, and I was most intrigued by two ways in which online success coaching is unique.

The first is something I hadn’t thought much about until now, but once we started talking about it, it seemed so obvious. That is the idea that part of an online success coach’s job is to connect students to or provide students with communities of fellow students and educators. This type of community building occurs organically (if not always effortlessly) on campus, as students live, work, and study in the same physical environment. As any of us who has spent time on one, whether as a student or faculty member, knows, college campuses are rich social environments where any variety of clubs and gatherings, both informal and formal, encourage students to get involved and interact with one another. Having a sense of community can make students feel more invested in their experience as well provide support when he or she is feeling frustrated or is struggling. This is why so many weight loss programs encourage us to share our progress with friends- it’s all so much easier when we know we are not alone.

While online students do participate in discussion threads and other class-related group projects, many online students do not explore opportunities (either because there are none or because they do not know how to seek them out) for greater social interaction. This lack of a greater sense of community deprives students of the social, academic, and motivational benefits that the group provides. Online success coaches themselves act as connections to a larger school community, but many go further. The success coach with whom I spoke realized that many of her students were young moms who were trying to get their degrees while simultaneously working and taking care of children, so she started an online support group where they could connect to each other directly. The group was an instant success, and since that time she has started an online group for young men and another for students veterans and military spouses. 

Secondly, the demographic spectrum of students who get their degrees online is much broader than it is for brick and mortar college students. Many of these students, like the moms discussed previously, are older and work full time jobs or take care of families in addition to attending school. While this generally means that these students come to school more mature and responsible than your garden variety 18-year old, scheduling can still be tough. Many of the students who do work are in school precisely because the jobs they have are often “survival jobs,” – relatively low paying and scheduling instability. A student who works as a restaurant server, for example, may think he has time to work on a paper on Thursday only to learn Wednesday night that the shift schedule has been changed and now he has to work. A student raising a child may be just sitting down to study for that midterm when she gets a call from school telling her that her child is sick and needs to be picked up. A student working as a server AND raising a child may have both of those things happen in the same day, and then she’s really got to scramble!

One of an online success coach’s most important jobs can be to help students navigate these scheduling complexities.   Ultimately, all success coaches primary goal is to do whatever they can to help a student achieve his or her goals; online coaches, however, do this job in an ever-growing environment with its own unique challenges. 

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.

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

Back to School Series: Helping Students Interact with Professionals

A comprehensive education is so much more than just “book learnin’.” Institutions of learning are also training grounds for building social, psychological, and professional life skills. As to the latter, many of us, after years or decades in the professional world, have forgotten that these rules of behavior and decorum are not necessarily innate- these skills need to be learned. And if we as educators and administrators fail to teach students the rules of professionalism, we are neglectfully leaving out a part of their education.

Be punctual, dress appropriately! Don’t walk into the office of someone from whom you need something with earphones in your ears! Pronounce your words clearly when speaking, and in emails, write in full sentences, and use proper punctuation and capitalization (i.e.- no text speak or emojis, please)! Much of this all seems like it would be common sense, right? Well, for some of us, maybe it is. But if we really think about it, that’s almost always because we picked up these lessons early, sometimes unconsciously, from our first role models: our parents and close family members. Perhaps we saw our fathers interact with their work colleagues. (Perhaps they even brought us to work to see for ourselves!) Perhaps we watched our mothers negotiate a deal with confidence and aplomb. Perhaps we grew up with the grandmother who was ever reminding us not to slouch, who, when we’d ask, “can Samantha and me go the mall?” replied, “You mean Samantha and I, dear.”

Many of the students who walk into my office as students in the success coaching program arrive without the benefit of those role models. Perhaps they are the first in their families to go to college and, while parents who lack a college education can certainly raise their children to be confident, articulate, responsible individuals, some may lack the experiences in the professional working world that would model for their children the more nuanced code of conduct. They may also just simply not know how some things work in the university setting itself. How does one untangle the legalese and acronymic language of financial aid forms, for example? Therefore, I make it part of my job as a success coach to help students learn how to behave in a professional setting, even on campus.

Part of the issue that students have when interacting with professionals in environments like the Registrar’s or Financial aid office is that they simply do not know what to request. When students are unable to effectively communicate what they need, both they and those tasked with helping them become frustrated, and problems are left unsolved. So with my students, the first thing we try to do is diagnose the problem. Then, we talk about effective ways to get the help they need from the resources available. In addition to the “nuts and bolts” tips I mentioned earlier, I always convey for my students the importance of coming across with some self-confidence…even if self-confident is the exact opposite of how they actually feel. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, of course, for asking questions is not only NOT a sign of weakness but actually a sign that a person is confident enough to admit what they don’t know, but DO walk into a room like you deserve to be there.

This is not always easy to do. It takes practice, but just as practice doing anything else can make one better at it, more comfortable in those clothes, so to speak, the same applies here. It reminds me of a student I once had who really struggled her first semester in college but by second semester, with guidance from the success coaching program, was doing much better. She was majoring in criminal justice, and that first summer she got an opportunity to work as an intern in a large city police station. When she returned in the fall, we got a chance to chat and the first thing she told me was how glad she was that we had talked about how to act in a professional environment. “I really did the things we talked about!” she reported excitedly, “and it worked! Before I left someone from the department went out of his way to comment on how mature I was!” She laughed, “and you and I both know that I came to school as one of the most immature people you could possibly meet!”

For online students, the age and life experience differential can often mean that they enter programs with a greater understanding of these professional skills. Many have full-time careers already, and for them it’s about remembering that the same knowledge that allows them to succeed at their jobs is entirely transferable here. With these students, it can be helpful to have them refer back to these experiences in the working world, to ask: what’s your work environment like? What are the big dos and don’ts? What are the rules, both explicit and tacit, about turning in work on time, communicating with colleagues and/or superiors?  Chances are, they are very similar to what’s required of them in college.

For me, however, there’s always one piece of advice underlying all others, and that is this: be someone with whom people like to work. Be someone they trust; be someone they can rely on; be someone they are happy to see walk into the office or classroom every day. Focus on that, and much of the rest of the path will illuminate itself from there.

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.


Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

Back to School: Helping Students Interact with Professors

We’ve had good ones; we’ve had ones who were not so good. We’ve had ones who changed our lives, our career paths, who opened us up to new ideas and ways of thinking; we’ve had others with whom we just tried to get by with a passing grade. We’ve all most likely had a wide spectrum of relationships with our teachers and professors, both in primary school and college, so we know that those relationships can be as rewarding, fraught, and complex as any others. For university students, these are important relationships, even if only because these people hold the power of the grade, and thus it’s important for students to learn how to interact with their professors.

The students I’ve worked with who have had difficulty in this area have had such difficulty for a variety of reasons, but often the power structure that puts professors on a (for some) intimidatingly higher plane than students is at the heart of it. Simply put, students are scared to talk to them. Scared that if they take advantage of office hours or express a need for help, the professor might think they are dumb. Scared to talk to any authority figure, but especially one who has the power to decide the fate of their GPAs. For some, the issue is cultural, which is something we’ve found at our university with international students from a few specific countries. Not all international students face cultural barriers to effective communication with professors at American universities, but some do. In these cultures, the status differential between students and professors is even greater than it is here. These students hold their professors in such high regard that to actually talk to one seems unthinkable, and to really open up to one about having difficulty in the class- totally anathema. Even classroom participation can be restricted by notions that one simply cannot for any reason express a point of view that might conflict with that of the professor.

International students aren’t the only ones who have to develop the skills to build successful student/professor relationships, and the first thing I tell all my students who seem to be having trouble is to remember that their professors are…spoiler alert…actual human beings! They are people too! They are at times happy and sad and energetic and stressed out. They have, at times, blind spots and biases and holes in their own knowledge. And they are almost always not only willing but excited to interact with students who show enough interest in their class to actually talk about it with them outside class time. I tell my students that what they may see as showing weakness (asking for help), their professors almost always interpret as showing interest. It’s a professor’s dream! When I’ve had students who were particularly daunted by the thought of meeting with a professor one-on-one, I’ve actually walked with them to the professor’s office door. The walk there often looks like a scene from Dead Man Walking, but when they emerge? Smiles! Relief! It wasn’t nearly bad as they thought it might be; in fact, the professor turned out to be a real person just like I said he or she would be! Weight lifted, and a bridge crossed forever.

Now, we all know from our own experiences that once in a while you will come in contact with a professor who is not the ideal. Who for whatever reason is NOT open, friendly, or helpful. It’s the other side of the “professors are people too” coin: people are not always at their best. So how should students navigate those relationships? It starts in the same place: remember that this professor is a person just like you. You know how you have a life outside of class, and it’s not always perfect? Well, so do they. Maybe they or someone they love is going through a difficult time. Perhaps he or she is facing the same burnout toward the end of the semester as you. So don’t take it personally because it may not be about you at all! But since you still have to get the grade, figure out what makes this professor tick. Figure out what kind of behavior and work is going to get you the result you desire in this class and do that. (A good place to start is by getting insight from students who’ve had that professor before. If it’s the material in the class that is at issue, find other resources- like peer tutoring- that can help.)  It’s also good training for the real world- sometimes the relationships we have to cultivate and make work are not the ones we would always choose. Sometimes we have co-workers or bosses who are difficult to deal with, so what do we do? We figure out the best way to succeed in an imperfect environment. When students realize this, it’s just another thing that they now see can be applicable to the rest of their lives, and that in and of itself can be a motivator.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how the student/professor relationship is growing and changing with the evolution of online education, and even those who have never taken an online class themselves can probably see both the positive and negatives based on their own experiences with things like social media. Often, online students find the relationships with their professors comes even easier online. Shy students who would never dare speak up in a lecture hall become poets in online discussion threads. Those who may have difficulty approaching a professor face-to-face find it much easier to communicate by email. These relationships can still be as complex and as rewarding as those with professors who are standing in the same classroom as their students, and each year that online education grows will provide us with more information as to how success coaches can help our students make the most of these relationships.

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.


Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

Peer Relationships In College: Skill Building for the Real World

I recently wrote about the changing relationships between students and their parents when a young man or woman enters college. The conversation made me realize that this particular relationship is only one of four “P”s. The full roster? Parents, peers, professors, and professionals. As students go from “moving out” to “moving in” in these next few weeks (don’t forget the t-shirt sheets!), I’d like to discuss the second of the four: that between students and their peers.

The relationships students form with their peers, both on campus and online, can hugely impact their college experiences personally, socially, and academically. Many would argue that these relationships are actually of more import than all the rest combined during this stage of life; physically removed from family (often for the first time), one begins to build a surrogate family of friends. It’s the blind leading the blind as they all try to figure out this brave new world together! This level of intimacy and shared experience, I believe, is why friendships that begin in college often last decades if not a lifetime, but it is also why it is so crucial to find friends who have your best interest at heart.

I have worked with more than a few students whose relationships within a disadvantageous peer group became huge boulders to their success. Especially for students who may be already lacking in the motivation department, hanging out in a friend group made-up of similarly unmotivated students, those who have a lax attitude toward academics, or those who simply do not understand what they want in life and therefore have no clear path to achieving it, can make it that much harder to stay on track. I had one student who was having such a hard time bucking the trend of “all play and no work” that I told him he could always use me as an excuse. “Tell your friends I am making you come study with me and there’s nothing you can do about it,” I’d say. Sure, there are days when the lesson should be how to tell your friends you can’t hang out because you are making you study, but you know…baby steps. And it worked! Jared began studying with me, and not only did his grades improve but his increased level of academic focus led another one of his friends to ask if he could come study with me too! Just as surrounding yourself with people who always have a second piece of pie is not going to help you lose weight, finding a jogging buddy can make dropping that stubborn 20 even easier!

Peer relationships are just as important inside the classroom, as they help students learn skills that will become incredibly valuable in the working world. Group projects can help you hone leadership skills, practice group decision making, and improve your ability to work with people who might have very different perspectives or ways of working. How do I navigate personality clashes? How do I deal with the man or woman in my group who is just difficult to work with?! College is a training ground for developing these kinds of peer-to-peer skills, and I remind my students that the relationships they develop in and out of the classroom will help them for years to come.

Again and again, I find my advice train arriving at the same station: identify what you need and then seek it out. In terms of peer relationships, that means finding good friends and good mentors. Whether that fellow student is next to you in class or 2,000 miles away logging in from her laptop- find mentors. Nurture those relationships. Ask for help. Pay it back and forward when you 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.

Success Coaching Relationships – Students and Parents

Success Coaching Relationships – Students and Parents

We may be coming into the dog days of summer, but for incoming college freshmen and their parents all over the country, this is a time of major transition. Sons and daughters are preparing to set out into the world of higher education and independence as mothers and fathers steel themselves to do that most dreaded act (even if it should be so easy): letting go. All of us have, at some point, gone through the transformation of the parent/child relationship that occurs as children become adults. For some, the change feels natural, easy, at times even imperceptible; for others, it can be a tumultuous and confusing road. In any case, one of the many jobs of a success coach is to help students understand and navigate these transitional relationships.

Knowing how to help a student in this way depends, of course, on the kind of relationship a student has had with his or her parents prior to arriving on campus. Some students are 100% ready for the independence of college life; others have never spent a night away from home. On the extreme ends of the spectrum, some students are used to having their parents do practically everything for them while others have basically raised themselves. While many students move through the this transition relatively easily, those with more complicated or co-dependent parent/child relationships can face significant roadblocks.

One phenomenon that has garnered its fair share of ink in the last few years is that of the “helicopter” parent. The picture most often portrayed is one of parents whose over-involvement in their children’s lives comes despite the protests of their son or daughter.  However, I find that, more often, this kind of relationship is a two-way street (albeit one that parents have been primarily responsible for creating). I’ve had students who are used to talking to their parents three or four times a day, and so that is what they continue to do in college. They are in near-constant communication (most often by text) with their parents, and they often feel incapable of making decisions of any importance without their parents’ input. This situation is not necessarily unhealthy, but it can prevent students from taking initiative on their own or thinking and acting independently.

Sometimes, though, the pressure does come primarily from the direction of the parent, and those are the cases I find particularly frustrating. I vividly remember one Fall, a few years ago, running into our track coach while crossing the quad. School had only been in session for a few days, and already he seemed run-down and stressed. I asked him what was the matter. “I recruited this amazing runner,” he began. “She’s smart and driven and, as an athlete, I could build my whole team around her.” So what was the problem, I asked? “Her mother has been distraught ever since she left home. She keeps calling, begging her daughter to come home, saying she can’t live without her.” And so? “And so she left this morning.” I didn’t know this woman or her life, obviously, but I wanted to try to get her to see that it was her child’s future, not her own, that she needed to keep in mind. This particular student was not one of mine, but I have had students facing similar pressures, and I understand how difficult it can be. Even those who stay must build up a wellspring of courage in order to combat the stress and guilt that can accompany a parent or parents who are controlling or who just cannot seem to let go.  Other students arrive at our university having dealt with all sorts of manifestations of family dysfunction. I’ve had more than a few students whose family lives were simply terrible and who were thrilled to have finally escaped, only to find new challenges at college which stemmed, in part, from their lack of good role models at home. I’ve had students who have no parental support whatsoever- who’ve grown up in foster care, who were begrudgingly passed around from relative to relative, or who simply had parents who did not seem much to care about the future of their children. As a parent myself, it seems unfathomable, but it happens.

Obviously, the way in which a success coach helps to guide someone through these complex relationships and changes varies from student to student, but I find myself at some point giving a version of the same advice to all, “This is your life. From here on out, it’s all up to you. You have to make your own decisions and try to build the life you want. It may not be easy; in fact, at times it may seem nearly impossible to tell your mother you can’t come home because you have to study, or to apply for financial aid when you are the first person in your family to go to college and the weight of the world seems to be on your shoulders. Perhaps your struggle is seemingly as simple as the journey to learning how to do your own laundry. But that’s why there are resources here to help you!” I tell my students to seek out mentors, whether they be fellow students, RAs, coaches, professors, or administrators. “Find someone who seems to know something you’d like to learn and let them show you how to do it,” I say, “for though we and we alone are in charge of our own lives, we all need teachers, mentors, guides, and friends.”

And in terms of a student’s relationship with his or her parents, I remind them that this process of transition is normal. We all go through it. And for most of us, when we come out on the other end, our relationships with our parents are often deeper and more meaningful than ever before. 

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.