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Personal coaches help boost college retention

Susan Notes: What a notion: Instead of blaming the victim, help him. And note that the students' problems aren't intellectual. Lots more is involved. I say "Three cheers!"


by Associated Press

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Heather Parsons was already juggling a full-time job and family life on top of her classes at Northeastern University. On top of that, a school project was in jeopardy because her team wasn't working well together -- anxiety she just didn't need.

Time to consult her personal coach, Chris Tilghman.

"It was so easy, taking a step back from the emotions surrounding the issue," said Parsons, whose coach used his weekly phone session with Parsons to make a variety of suggestions for getting the group back on track. "Hearing a third person made all the difference."

The best part: Northeastern picked up the tab.

"I told him, 'You're cheaper than therapy,"' Parsons laughed. "He said, 'I get that a lot."'

Long reserved for pro athletes and corporate executives, personal coaches are now being offered by some colleges to help students set goals and manage time.

It sounds like the kind of college concierge service one would expect to find at exclusive, upper-crust schools. But in fact, the 15 or so schools that have hired a coaching company called InsideTrack don't fit that description at all. Several -- including a number of for-profits -- cater to older students trying to balance the demands of work, school and family. Others serve traditional-age college students who may need help making the transition from high school.

The coaches talk to students about setting goals and respond to anything that might be getting in the way of pursuing their degree, from financial issues to personality conflicts. Following a pilot program last year, Northeastern will offer once-weekly telephone coaching sessions to all new adult-education students this year.

Our Lady of the Lake College, a small Roman Catholic school in San Antonio, Texas, which serves mainly Hispanic students, is offering in-person coaching free to all new freshmen this year, under a grant from AT&T.

What the schools most want from the service is to improve graduation rates. Barely 60 percent of students who enter four-year colleges earn a degree from that school within six years, according to the Department of Education's latest figures.

Colleges historically have blamed students' weak effort or poor preparation. But increasingly, colleges are recognizing that a mix of factors makes students leave school -- from money to family problems to lack of mentoring. That's especially true for adult learners, at a time when students 30 and older comprise about one-quarter of the nation's 17 million undergraduates.

"Most of the students that we work with that are at risk are not really at risk intellectually," said InsideTrack co-founder Alan Tripp. "They're smart enough to do the work. The system just isn't working for them."

Paying for retention

There is a catch and it's a big one: The coaching service is labor-intensive and very expensive. For schools paying from their own pocket, the cost averages about $1,000 per student for a year of weekly sessions in person or by phone -- not something most schools can afford.

But participating colleges hope the intensive help will pay for itself by keeping students in school and paying tuition. InsideTrack claims pilot programs have boosted retention 25 percent or more, saving schools $3 for every $1 they spend, Tripp says. They also use it as a recruiting and enrollment tool. Northeastern, for instance, has been putting coaches in touch with adult learners as soon as they apply, and reports an increase in the number who enroll.

"Students, especially adult students, their lives are busy," said Christopher Hopey, Northeastern's vice president of adult and continuing education. "You've got two kids, you got a job. Lots of people call us up and say we want to come to Northeastern, but they never follow through with it."

At some schools, InsideTrack offers in-person coaching, but most takes place by phone, from call centers in San Francisco, California, and Portland, Oregon. The service will soon be available to students -- on their own dime -- at nonparticipating schools through a partnership with student loan company Nelnet.

"In a lot of cases we're trying to help people think through very specific problems -- I'm totally stuck in this math class," said Tilghman, who is Parsons' coach and has an education master's degree and an MBA from Stanford University. "You can hear the frustration in their voice and it's driving their anxiety."

The company emphasizes that coaching doesn't replace on-campus services such as psychological counseling and academic advising. But the coaches are plugged into campus resources and record-keeping. Tilghman sent Parsons an e-mail asking her why she hadn't yet registered for classes (it turned out she had but there was confusion over her maiden name).

"It can really help navigating big university life," Parsons said. "In so many cases in these big universities, you can be just a number."

Northeastern's Hopey says another bonus is that he'll get detailed information about his students and their challenges. But while he wishes the company well, he isn't sure the business model will ultimately work. At least four schools have tried the service and dropped it for various reasons, and Tripp acknowledges the market is limited.

That's because the public two- and four-year colleges that educate most students could probably never afford it. Many are working on their own programs to help keep students in school, but overall, public funding for higher education provides few financial incentives for colleges to improve their graduation rates. In fact, many public systems would quickly run out of space if their graduation rates rose significantly.

Parsons, 26, who also got her bachelor's degree at Northeastern, says at the very least, coaching helped make her very large school feel like a friendlier place.

"(Tilghman) used to say, 'Is there anything I can do for you?' which I don't think I ever heard in my four years as an undergrad," she said.

— Associated Press
CNN.com
2006-09-08


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