Student success depends on many factors, both inside and outside of the classroom. The student’s ability to successfully navigate classwork, jobs, financial hurdles, family obligations, health, and more all play into whether or not a student will successfully be able to complete their academic career.
One way to help ensure student academic success is by providing success coaches to partner with students. Success coaches provide students with personalized advising to meet their unique needs. Success coaches act as a resource for students to connect them with on-campus resources as well as community resources, including financial aid, housing, food service programs, transportation, child care, technology, and internet access. Success coaches are responsible for guiding their students and supporting them in what they need to successfully complete their academic journey.
A First In The World (FITW) Research Report found that students benefit more from success coaching when their coaches don’t change, as building trusting, personal relationships with coaches takes time. Students who had the same coach for the duration of the study experienced a 12% increase in credential completion. As such, student success and retention rely on the higher education institution not only hiring the best people to fill the role of student success coach, but also retaining them.
Challenging Times for Success Coaches
These past years, as the world has grappled with the ravages of the global coronavirus pandemic, students have struggled to remain focused on their studies. Some students have lost sources of income and housing, some are facing mental health issues stemming from feelings of isolation and disconnection, others have struggled with food insecurities.
Throughout all of this, student success coaches (also known as student-affairs professionals) have worked tirelessly to keep students engaged and to meet their needs as they struggle with pandemic-related issues on top of normal day-to-day and academic challenges.
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted the challenges faced by student success coaches and professionals. The article states, “Now, when supporting students is crucial to their success and to the health of institutions, experts worry that some employees might leave the field for good, through layoffs or burnout. By nature, student affairs professionals deal in crisis,” said Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. “But ‘nobody’s meant to deal with a crisis for 10 months straight.’”
Additionally, student success coaches often are called upon to fill a greater need within the educational setting. The Chronicle of Higher Education article goes on to say that, “On top of the pandemic, student-affairs professionals helped students cope with other unforeseen obstacles and traumas. First came the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police violence and racial injustice. Then came a presidential election, after which Donald Trump refused to concede. When there’s tension or disruption on campus, student affairs are often the employees who mediate it,” said Lakeisha Mathews, director of the Career and Internship Center at the University of Baltimore.
Supporting the Supporters
The great risk to learning institutions is that their student affairs staff will burn out, which is wholly understandable. The individuals who fill these positions are passionate about what they do. It is not merely a clock-in-and-clock-out kind of job. Student success coaches take their work home with them, both literally and figuratively. They worry about their students over weekends and school breaks. They work long hours. They care.
So how do higher ed and tech ed institutions go about retaining their best success coaches? Who is taking care of these all-important members of our learning institutions? In October 2020, the American Council on Education released the result of their 2020 Fall Term Survey. The results of the survey found that 42% of university and college presidents identified the mental health of faculty and staff as being one of the most important issues facing the administration. This put the mental health of faculty and staff close behind the issues of students' mental health (53%) and long-term financial viability (43%).
The Importance of Retention
Recently, colleges and universities have needed to tighten the budget belt as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in fewer enrollments, which, in turn, means less tuition money is being poured into the institution’s budget. Given these budget shortfalls and constraints, learning institutions are trying to do what they can to retain their faculty and staff so as to not have to go through the very costly process of recruitment.
In an article on ResearchGate titled, “The Influences Impacting Staff Turnover in Higher Education,” author Obed Figueroa writes, “It is estimated that an employee will change jobs seven times in a career lifetime (Jo, 2008). In Higher Education, the turnover rates have been disruptive and costly. It is projected that 68 million dollars is spent as a result of turnover in the workplace (Jo, 2008). Some of the hidden costs are the reduction of productivity, skill drain, and poor morale for the remaining employees. Additional costs can also be found in the time and efforts taken to search and train new employees. The silent thief that robs your bottom line is called turnover (Jo, 2008). The impacts of turnover within [Higher Education Institutions] HEI’s are experienced in multiple areas within industry. There are multiple factors that are influencing the challenges of turnover within Higher Education.”
How to Retain Student Success Coaches
It is especially important for institutions to take steps to retain student success coaches because of the very nature of their job. Success coaches develop strong relationships with their students. Losing those relationships through staff attrition is detrimental not only to the “brain drain” of how student retention programs work, but also damages the trust that students place in their coaches and the retention programs that they are a part of.
There are ways that higher ed and tech ed institutions can help to retain their staff. Here are some of them:
Communication: Strong levels of communication between administration and student success coaches promotes a trusting relationship, which can help foster a positive work environment. In a 2018 Forbes article promoting the advantages of communication training within the workplace, the author writes, “Improved work communication has been linked to better job satisfaction, improved company performance, increased productivity, and more empowered employees.” Additionally, fostering an environment in which communication between administration and staff is encouraged and valued, learning institutions can show how those communication skills mirror what they want student success coaches to have with their own students.
Competitive Pay: Staff who engage with students on a regular basis tend to be well educated and well trained. According to EdNews Daily, an education news outlet for K-12 through higher education, “Employees most commonly leave because they feel undervalued, especially higher education where the professional staff within the student service offices that students commonly interact with are often well educated (Master’s degrees or above) and well trained (through professional development and yearly departmental training) but are paid minimum salaries (often just above entry-level pay) which lead to positions being vacated frequently in search of higher pay for the same work. A sense that the department is not as invested in the individual as the individual is invested in the organization is discouraging for advisors. Employers must be on the lookout for these conflicts, and implement employee retention best practices if they want to retain quality employees.” Increasing staff pay is one way to prevent turnover.
Work/Life Balance: Having a positive work/life balance is key to retaining employees. While student success coaches tend to go above and beyond for their students, it’s important that they also make time for themselves. This is especially true during the pandemic when burnout is a very real risk. A Morneau Shepell study of employers and employees found that 40% of managers and 34% of employees reported suffering from “extreme levels of stress...with both groups ranking workplace stress higher than personal stress.” By fostering a strong communication environment, institutions can create a healthy work/life balance by encouraging employees to use their time off to relax and recharge.
Flexibility: Especially given the long hours that student success coaches tend to put into their jobs, administrators would be wise to implement a policy of flexibility for when staff has obligations and commitments that will pull them away from students virtually or on campus. Having to choose between a program meeting in their department or attending their child’s parent/teacher conference can be an impossibly difficult choice for employees. A report by the Behavioral Science & Policy Association (BSP) found that “work-family conflict increases the odds of self-reported poor physical health by about 90%.” Flextime granted by an administration to attend to outside of work needs can increase employee morale, loyalty, and retention.
Training: Employee development helps staff feel that they are expanding their knowledge base and therefore are able to grow professionally and contribute more to an organization. By providing training, leadership, and team-building opportunities for employees, administrators are more likely to help staff feel that they are growing and advancing in their careers. According to a study by Umer Ahmad at Case Business School, organizations that commit to training and development for their employees enjoy a more committed employee population, have a stronger sense of trust between employees and employer, and have higher retention rates. As the study concludes, “The research provides empirical evidence that supports the cause of training and its effect on employee retention. Researchers who examined the relationship between training and employee retention, agree that the relationship exists between these two variables. The research has proved that employees’ decision to stay for a longer period of time can be influenced by training.”
Given the importance that retaining student success coaches can have on the relationships and institutional knowledge within student retention programs, higher education and technical education institutions would be wise to invest in ways that make their student success coaches feel appreciated and needed. Especially during this time of extreme circumstances, retaining student success coaches gives learning institutions an advantage with maintaining student enrollment and engagement, which goes a long way toward reaching student success goals.
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