The Positive Impact of Success Coaching on Community College Students

March 10, 2022 Watermark Insights

College students today lead complex lives. Many higher education students are also working jobs to help pay for school as well as fulfilling family responsibilities, all while trying to attend classes, complete assignments, and study for exams.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), about 20% (1 in 5) undergraduates in the 2015-16 school year were also trying to raise children. High child care costs, which is needed so that undergraduate parents can attend classes, make it more difficult for them to graduate. Additionally, the number of low-income students enrolled in college is growing. According to a 2018 report by the GAO, “the percentage of all undergraduates who had a household income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line increased from 28 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2016.” The GAO report also found that college students today are increasingly at risk of food insecurity, considering that three-quarters of low-income students are single parents, first-generation students, or homeless.

Higher education institutions are taking note of the challenges that particularly low-income and minority students face because they can directly affect student retention rates. All students should have access to higher education and be supported to reach their goal of academic achievement. Colleges and universities are increasingly making changes to how they support students in order to achieve higher retention and success rates.

Supporting at-risk students through holistic approaches can address and resolve issues both on campus and off. Higher education institutions that have student success programs have found that building relationships with students needs to happen campus-wide since those relationships are essential to helping meet students’ needs and keeping them engaged in their studies and involved on-campus.

Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly (SEMQ), a publication by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers (AACRAO), recently published an account of the results of a 5-year First in the World (FITW) collaboration between Watermark (formerly Aviso Retention) and the Carolina Works consortium, led by Central Carolina Community College.

First in the World was designed by the U.S. Department of Education to “support the development, replication, and dissemination of innovative solutions and evidence for what works in addressing persistent and widespread challenges in postsecondary education for students who are at risk for not persisting in and completing postsecondary programs, including, but not limited to, adult learners, working students, part-time students, students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities, and first-generation students.”

The FITW program developed by the Carolina Works consortium and Watermark was created to determine if proactive and individualized success coaching at 10 North Carolina Community Colleges improved student retention. By implementing and utilizing a unique combination of targeted student success coaching, predictive analytics, technology supports, and business process change the FITW research sought to determine if this combination of efforts had the potential to significantly improve student success. Studies published over the past decade have shown that success coaching has been proven in other contexts to remove academic barriers leading to increases in retention and completion rates.

Community College Study Setting

The Watermark/Carolina Works study occurred within the community college setting. According to the SEMQ article, “Studying promising strategies in community colleges is important because approximately nine million students are enrolled in public two-year institutions, which offer a lower-cost, open-access entry point to postsecondary education and credentials. Community colleges also disproportionately enroll students of color and low-income students, with 55 percent of all Hispanic undergraduates and 45 percent of all Black undergraduates enrolled in community colleges, according to recent estimates. In addition, approximately 55 percent of dependent students with family incomes below $30,000 in 2on-12 began their higher education journey at a community college. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of community college students do not earn a postsecondary degree or credential of any kind.”

The study allowed for a meticulous examination of success coaching and supportive technology programs to provide a personalized and proactive support approach to success coaching. Real-time data acquired from predictive analytics regarding students’ academic progress and potential outside challenges allowed student success coaches to prioritize engagement and outreach with their students. By building and nurturing personalized relationships with students, success coaches found greater success in meeting students’ needs, and ultimately, increasing student achievement.

The Study

For the FITW study, the Carolina Consortium randomly assigned a success coach — or didn’t assign a success coach — to students at the beginning of their first semester. All students, regardless of whether they were assigned a success coach, had access to any of the services that were already available at the college, such as academic advisors. For the semesters of Fall 2016, Fall 2017, and Fall 2018, more than 700 students were randomly assigned to the study, and of those students, approximately 50% received a success coach. Students were tracked for two academic years.

Success coaches acted as the main contact person for the students, working to develop strong personal relationships with students so as to be able to connect them with support and resources within and outside of the campus setting. Success coaches also used technology such as predictive analytics, performance tracking, and automated and early alerts to keep track of student progress, attendance, and course-level risks. This helped success coaches to prioritize real-time and proactive outreach. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between the study’s treatment group (students who were assigned a success coach) and the control group (students who were not assigned a success coach) was the existence of a success coach.

At the beginning of each semester, success coaches were trained to email and text all of the students on their caseload and then follow up with more individualized outreach during the first weeks of the semester to help proactively deter any issues that may arise. Success coaches also reached out to students based on automatically-generated notifications that they received from faculty or other predictive analytic software. The messages sent to students both reflected positive feedback and an acknowledgment and invitation for assistance to address challenges the student was facing.

As part of the study, across all participating campuses, there was also an in-depth evaluation of the success of project implementation. Site visits, interviews, focus groups with success coaches, faculty and staff, students, and administrators were conducted to determine the achievement of six interrelated measures of a successful implementation.

The Results

The study’s results showed that the rewards of having worked with a success coach grow over a period of time. Relationships with success coaches take time to develop, and so the longer the student worked with their success coach, the more likely they were to achieve success. From the full sample of students involved in the study, students who were assigned a success coach were 4 percent more likely to stay enrolled in college for two academic years. Additionally, students who worked with a success coach over the study period experienced a 6 percent increase in fall-to-fall retention and an 8 percent increase in retention rates from fall to spring. Students who were able to work with the same success coach over the study period realized a 12 percent increase in their likelihood of completing a credential.

The overarching goal of the FITW study was to determine the effectiveness of technology-supported success coaching and how this kind of program would affect student groups that were typically underserved, such as low-income students and students of color. The FITW study results showed that there were significant benefits for Black students who received success coaching during the study period. Among Black students, those who had been assigned to a success coach were 8 percent more likely to stay enrolled in school for a year and 18 percent more likely to stay enrolled in school for two academic years.

The findings of the FITW study authenticate that technology-supported success coaching is a powerful tool in increasing student retention and success rates, especially when students have the opportunity to work with the same coach for several semesters. Technology solutions used in these programs can help build lasting, trustworthy relationships between students and their success coach, which can help ensure that students receive proactive and holistic support in guiding them to achieve their academic goals.

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