Many student success initiatives in higher education focus on meeting the needs of students who are most at risk of dropping out. Loyola University New Orleans has flipped this script by giving every first-year student personalized coaching—and the percentage of students who return for their second year is now at an all-time high.

“We believe deeply that any student can enhance their experience through these kinds of conversations,” says Director of Student Success Elizabeth Rainey.

The university had been coaching students on how to be successful through its own home-grown effort, but this program was by referral only, Rainey says—and it was clear that “we needed some formal training on a model with a proven track record, so that students received a consistently high-quality experience.”

Improving the process
For the 2017-18 academic year, the university partnered with a company called InsideTrack to help with its student coaching, and it expanded the program to include all first-year students.

InsideTrack coached about 300 of the university’s 800 first-year students by phone, email, and text messaging last year, and the company also trained university staff how to be student coaches for the other 500 first-year students. This year, two full-time university staff members and several volunteers do all of the student coaching, while InsideTrack conducts monthly training with staff to ensure success.

The university’s goal is to meet with students in person for 20 minutes at a time, although this can vary—and sometimes the coaching takes place via text-messaging instead. “Some students are more engaged than others,” Rainey says. “Ideally, we touch base with them every two weeks.”

There is no standard curriculum or approach that applies for everyone; instead, the coaching is personalized to each student’s needs. Coaches ask questions about different aspects of students’ lives, including their career goals, financial concerns, and their level of engagement on campus. Then, coaches ask: What’s the most important thing we should focus on in this conversation, so that you leave with a few steps to move forward?

“A lot of students think they don’t need help,” says Rainey. “Our message is that this is about enhancing your experience and getting the most out of your time.” Student goals range from improving their GPA to meeting someone new—or even exploring the city.

“Our intent is to keep them on a path to graduation, but we know that so many other factors are part of that journey. So, the space is really for any of those conversations to take place.”

Student coaching can help raise retention rates. #highered

An immediate payoff
Before the student coaching program was in place, the university’s retention rate from a student’s first to second year averaged just under 80 percent. This fall, 85 percent of students returned for their second year—an all-time high for the university.

“That’s a jump of 5 percentage points in a year,” Rainey says. “I attribute a lot of this success to student coaching.”

Coaching all first-year students marks a shift in mindset, but officials have found that it’s “significantly more effective” to offer services to everyone up front.

“We’re teaching students how to solve problems and advocate for themselves, so if there is a stumble, that support is already in place,” says Rainey. “It’s a different way of talking to students that builds autonomy and helps them succeed. Often, students know what they need to do. You just have to ask the right questions to help them pull that out for themselves.”

About the Author:

A former eCampus News editor, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in writing about educational innovation.