UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has just reported research associated with student completion of college. For any traditional higher education institution, it has very clear implications for interventions with students in order to create a successful college experience that leads to graduation. The challenge for colleges and universities in taking advantage of this research may be the will, the staff and the training of staff required to take advantage of the research results. The challenge may also be a culture that accepts that the implications of the UCLA research are essentially for the need for student coaches and student coaching.
The research implies two major time frames in which a college can intervene – (1) the pre-enrollment period after application and (2) the actual student campus experience. The first – the pre-enrollment period – may be the most challenging for intervention by traditional colleges and universities, as it will demand a change in behavior and redirection of resources.
Colleges already expend considerable resources during the pre-enrollment period, but those expenditures are not directed at the interventions implied by UCLA’s research. Instead, they are primarily focused on persuasion via self-promotion and pre-enrollment processing. Most colleges spend a great deal on very high quality, glossy brochures and recruitment staff whose task is to persuade high school students to attend the college. They also put resources behind revision to university websites with the intent of promoting the college with positive stories about the faculty, students and campus experience. But once a student is accepted, primary contact with the student consists mostly of email or physical mail associated with the details of matriculation with the possible exception of some colleges’ use of an alumni-hosted “send-off” party.
The UCLA research results point to a number of interventions for which universities could deploy resources. Most of these pre-enrollment interventions will demand that the university employ a “coaching” model in (a) encouraging a pre-campus visit, highly associated with graduation within four years; (b) building realistic expectations of what it is like to attend this university in this environment with its urban or rural characteristics, its heat (e.g., Arizona) or its snow (e.g., Colorado), etc.; and (c) promoting specific student goals for the educational experience as a means of encouraging the drive to achieve.
The second area in which UCLA’s research indicates the potential for successful intervention through coaching is the on-campus student experience. While one of the strongest negative factors for graduation is living off-campus in the UCLA research, there are positive interventions that matter. Most of those highly depend upon human interaction with the student in encouraging, coaching, if you will, positive student behaviors. Among them are maintaining the student’s drive to achieve with advice and counsel that supports goal-setting. They also include supporting the student in his/her engagement with clubs and on-campus activities like intramural sports, band, forensics, etc.
The surprise for many in the UCLA research is the extent to which coaching students seems to matter for their success. Most of us have never thought that coaching was something that students necessarily needed. Instead, they needed a sound preparation for college, a commitment to study, and the will to learn. We don’t question an athlete’s need for a coach despite ability, commitment and will; why should we question the need for coaching for the non-student-athlete? But we do. Nevertheless, the results of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute’s work makes clear the value that focused coaching can have on student success. The challenge for colleges and universities is to commit to the change in approach, the redeployment of resources around the research’s implications and the staff training necessary to implement coaching – or to outsource coaching to a group that is professionally trained to do exactly what the UCLA research implies.