Student Success

If You Want Performance, Hire a Coach – Keeping Freshmen on the Path to Success

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New freshmen are nearly two months into their college journey. Some are off and running, some are just finding their feet, and some have already stumbled and fallen. Every student arrives at college with a unique set of possibilities for success and risks of failure. More institutions than ever recognize that the key to a successful learning journey is creating an advising and guidance ecosystem that helps each student get going, identify and build strengths, mitigate weaknesses, anticipate hazards, and envision the end result. That sounds like the job of a coach, but how does that fit in with traditional academic advising? Nearly all top-performing institutions on Eduventures Student Success Ratings believe that improving the advising and guidance ecosystem is critical to making significant improvements in student success.   Which of the following initiatives are part of your student success strategy?   Innovators are pivoting from guidance and support designed to help students understand the institution’s norms and expectations to an ecosystem that maps each individual student’s goals and expectations onto the institution’s mission, values, and capabilities. A recent study from Tyton Partners shows that this “guided pathways” approach to advising is rated most highly by institutions. This is in line with a broader definition of academic advising that has emerged over the past 30 years. Still, The National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) describes the job of academic advisors as to instill “the institution’s mission, culture, and expectations; the meaning, value, and interrelationship of the institution’s curriculum and co-curriculum; modes of thinking, learning, and decision-making; the selection of academic programs and courses; the development of life and career goals; campus/community resources, policies, and procedures; and the transferability of skills and knowledge.” That’s a well-intentioned mouthful, but no part of that statement mention students and their goals and expectations. So what should institutions think about when they try to craft an advising and guidance ecosystem that puts the student journey first? There are many dimensions. Let’s focus on two critical ones: the type of guidance provided and the people who provide that guidance.

Type of Guidance

The most useful distinction here is to think about advising, coaching, and mentoring and their interrelationships. A quick refresher on the basic distinctions among these types of guidance:
  • Advisers are traditionally thought of as sharpshooters with specific expertise. For example, the person who knows exactly what courses you have to take when to get that biomedical bachelor's degree, the research project you might want to get involved in, and where you might want to apply to graduate school.
  • Coaches lead a process of discovery and skill development. They facilitate learning, motivate, hold students accountable, and focus on meeting performance goals. Coaches feed students the right information at the right time, reframe situations, and provide the right resources. In a college or university context, a first-generation college student might be assigned a coach who they meet with on a regular basis to ensure they stay on track.
  • Mentors can be thought of as role models. They develop long-term, less formal relationships in which they share their experiences and knowledge with students. This could be the alumni entrepreneur who shares her career travails to help a student think more clearly about the future.
In practice, academic advisers often don’t just advise, they may engage in some level of coaching and mentoring as well. It may also be true that students receive advising, but no coaching or mentoring at all. At some institutions, only selected students receive coaching. In any case, a robust ecosystem will formally recognize who on campus is playing each of these roles for students and why that is the case.

People Who Provide Guidance

The most common types of people involved in the guidance and support ecosystem are faculty, professional staff, students, and alumni. Many colleges have given thought to when to use professional advisors versus faculty advisors. In our report, Student Success - Is Your Institution Really Ready?, we discovered that thoughtful institutions tend to look at this as an “and” rather than an “or” decision. They want their students to have the right team of people guiding their journey. The most thoughtful institutions are going one step further; they think about who will take on the “coach” role for each student. That coach could be a well-trained faculty adviser or a professional adviser. Every institution will have to decide for themselves how they want to define an advising and guidance ecosystem, and who should enact it. There’s no one right way to do it, but a coaching model, where coaches organize a diverse support team, is a powerful way to get results.  

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