A maze depicting the struggle some higher ed student support teams face.

10 ways student support teams can solve common challenges

Student support teams can get bogged down in procedures and are prevented from actually serving students

Student support teams are often pulled in multiple directions at once, and the demands placed on these teams often leave many students “on hold.”

Survey data from 40 institutions conducted over the past 5 years shows that higher-ed policies and processes make it difficult for student support teams to identify and address the roadblocks between their teams and success.

This data uncovers some of the most common challenges student support teams face, and the accompanying report from InsideTrack, which spotlights different institutions and how they addressed student support needs, is intended to help student support teams create a structural framework to address obstacles preventing them from fulfilling their roles.

Read more: How to improve support for part-time students

Austin Community College (ACC), featured in the report, gave its student support and advising an overhaul after realizing students’ needs were changing.

“Several years back, we realized that in order for us to make some significant headway at scale, we were going to have to redesign and reimagine our advising,” says Dr. Virginia Fraire, ACC’s vice president of student services. “Our demographics have changed significantly and our processes and structure weren’t keeping up with the needs of our changing population.”

The team at ACC realized it needed more data, and better infrastructure, to support a new advising system.

“It’s very difficult to assess any kind of impact when you don’t have good data,” Fraire adds.

“It’s taken a lot of leadership, change, reorganizing, and setting up a complete analytics department; that opened our eyes and it gives us the data to help us know what we need to do to make a difference,” says Dr. Wade Bradfute, executive dean of student services for ACC’s south region.

ACC learned more about its student support needs using InsideTrack, and Bradfute says that shed light on the many non-academic factors contributing to students’ need for support and guidance. Close to 80 percent of ACC students are part-time, and nearly 50 percent are providing some sort of support for their families while they’re attending.

“We’re making sure we’re arranging advising sessions so we aren’t just talking about classes, but also about student needs,” Bradfute says.

The 10 biggest challenges for student support teams

1. Challenge: Inconsistent approach to student support
Recommendation: Adopt a shared support methodology

When Northeast Wisconsin Technical College trained its entire student-facing team—from admissions to financial aid to faculty—in the same coaching-based methodology, they were able to enhance the support students received at every stage of their journey.

2. Challenge: Transactional approach to student support
Recommendation: Adopt a developmental support approach

After the Austin Community College advising team adopted a developmental coaching model, student meetings about things like enrollment and transfer applications started branching off into other topics that had a surprising impact on persistence and completion.

3. Challenge: One-size-fits-all approach
Recommendation: Provide personalized support at scale

Developing subject matter expertise for specific student populations can also be an effective way to personalize support. Originally established to meet the specific needs of military students at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Brandman University continues to support active-duty military and veteran students at six military bases and online. In order to best serve this student population, Brandman provides military-specific coaches who support students as they transition from the culture of the military to academia and the civilian workforce.

4. Challenge: Students who need the most support aren’t receiving it
Recommendation: Develop strategies for proactive student outreach

In a 2014 article on the benefits of proactive student support—also known as “intrusive advising”—for specific populations, authors Beth Giroir and Jeremy Schwehm describe key strategies employed in proactive outreach. These include ensuring that advisors “make the first move” when connecting with students, demonstrate knowledge about the institution and available resources and understand outside-of-school factors that could impact student success.

5. Challenge: Lack of clear staff objectives
Recommendation: Set performance expectations based on institutional objectives

At every institution, student support staff objectives should connect with student outcomes. An article on the role of student affairs in learning outcomes assessment published by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment urges student affairs professionals to “connect your work as much as possible to the overall general learning principles and goals of your institution.”

6. Challenge: Limited professional development opportunities
Recommendation: Develop training and quality assurance plans

When Old Dominion University integrated a new coaching approach to more meaningfully engage with prospective online students, the program provided quality assurance and professional development to help staff adopt new practices. Staff satisfaction and engagement increased along with enrollment rates.

7. Challenge: Lack of coordination among student-facing departments
Recommendation: Create a journey map with support touchpoints

The University of Central Florida mapped out its student support pathway to better understand the online student experience. The institution found that students had multiple entry points into the university and could benefit from receiving support and resources sooner. Clarifying the student journey became one of UCF’s initial steps in building a new student support program that enhanced the student experience.

8. Challenge: Change fatigue
Recommendation: Adopt change management framework

Best practices for change management in student support programs include making staff aware of the change and the reasons behind it; building staff skills to successfully execute the change; and maintaining highly visible executive sponsorship.

9. Challenge: Difficulty connecting with students
Recommendation: Adopt multichannel student support approach

When coaches at one institution began using texting for student communications, they were more than three times as successful at engaging with difficult-to-reach students.

10. Challenge: Staff are not fully utilizing technology capabilities
Recommendation: Leverage your platform to better support staff

When Penn State University World Campus incorporated a technology-enabled approach into their personalized coaching program—combining personal interactions with digital resources—the program saw increased yield and first-year retention, and was able to serve about four times as many students at a similar cost.

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Laura Ascione

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