The Missing Link: How Success Coaching Can Solve Higher Education’s Retention Crisis

Colleges and universities are facing the ever-demanding challenges of student retention and empowering students to succeed and graduate. In fact, as many as 1-in-3, first-year students won’t return back after freshman year. Even more alarming is the fact that only 59% of full-time students will graduate from a 4-year institution.

We often over-attribute these alarming statistics to inevitable issues of affordability—because it’s often the default answer students offer for their non-persistence. But when you really dig for the reason, affordability actually is often not the true answer. In a recent interview with Amit Mrig (President and CEO of Academic Impressions), Joseph Garcia (President of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) expressed his thoughts about what leaders across all platforms of higher education can do to maximize student success: “talk to [your] students.”

Garcia believes that a loss of student retention is most likely because the students didn’t feel engaged or supported. And once that happens, especially with the post-traditional student, the learner simply feels out of place—and falls through the cracks. In order to increase student retention, institutions of higher education need to offer stronger and more engaging support systems. Garcia mentions that if “[we] just ask a student who is leaving why they are leaving, they will say ‘affordability.’ But we need to dig deeper.”

Post-traditional students, particularly, need additional resources to help guide them through the waters of coming back to school. Because, most often, the day-to-day struggles of every day life are what prevents students from completing their program. Issues such as work-life balance in conjunction with course work, family responsibilities, and even motivation can become serious challenges for students. The role of success coaching can alleviate this issue. Success coaches motivate and help by positively impacting the student experience and aligning a student’s everyday actions to their short and long term goals. The focus is to help students identify and achieve their educational, professional, and personal goals within the context of the college experience.

Helix Education ensures Success Coaches succeed in helping students through careful research. We are able to apply a set of “risk markers” for each student, based on questionnaires that predict what potential pitfalls for student success might look like. Students who are single parents, who work demanding jobs—or simply have other life commitments might have more difficult time with success. These data points empower us to give success coaches a more holistic view of the student to use as a guide when developing action plans with students.

When you are able to predict what roadblocks might appear at any point throughout the student life cycle, you can ensure a student has a strong support system. This predictive model allows success coaches to focus on high-quality, high-touch outreach and relationship building with the student. The value of focused and intentional success coaching is undeniable — those who are coached for a period of their college enrollment are more likely to persist and graduate.

Case (Study) and Point: take a look at one of our most recent and happy success stories at Brenau University. Turrah Benton, class of 2016, credits her success coaches at Brenau for her ultimate success that led to graduation. Benton, a mother of three and full-time fourth grade teacher, was about to give up on her dreams of obtaining a degree—especially once she was due for a painful gall bladder surgery.

But her success coach, Melanie Grinnell-Corcoran (appointed by Helix), played a truly integral part to her success. She and and Ms. Benton met frequently, determining what Ms. Benton’s goals, motivations, and roadblocks were—and more importantly, what they could do as a team to overcome the obstacles. Because of the direct attention and planning from coaching, Turrah Benton was able to meet each challenge head on and keep her eyes on the ultimate goal of graduation.

Bottom line, what traditional higher education has done in the past—crowded classrooms that make uneasy students feel lost, inconvenient office hours, and a “sink or swim” mentality towards student progress—is exactly where it needs to be: in the past. In order to meet the demands of a new generation of post-traditional learners who have a full slew of life challenges in addition to their coursework, higher education must recognize the incredible value of success coaching. Through a truly student-centric approach, success coaches are able to develop a rapport with students in a way that traditional methodology doesn’t allow for—each student feels as if they’re the institution’s only student.

Sarah Horn

As the VP of Retention at Helix Education, Sarah brings unique insight into student retention from more than a decade of experience in higher education, nearly all in operations. She has designed, scaled and managed a success coaching program for an online Associate's Degree, and has a tremendous amount of experience aligning and implementing relevant, practical retention strategies that drive results. Previously, she worked for Inside Track as Campus Director, implementing large-scale partnership. Sarah is a graduate of The University of Rochester and earned her Master's degree at John F. Kennedy University.