Sarah Deal and Brian Merritt: Increasing Student Success through “Just-in-Time” Advising

College students attend community colleges not only looking for an education but also expecting that this education will lead them to a prosperous future.  Community Colleges are working to find innovative approaches to increasing student success amid declining resources and budgets.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2008, only 26% of first-time beginning community college students attained a degree or certificate within five years. National data also reveals that up to 40% of community college students leave without a credential within the first two semesters, especially at-risk students.

Data reported in IPEDS for 2013-2014 shows that the average fall-to-fall retention rate in North Carolina community colleges was 49% and the completion rate at 150% time in 2014 was 20%. Smith, Baldwin, Schmidt noted that despite an “alphabet soup” of college success initiatives, “few colleges have significantly improved overall outcomes.” Even more alarming, performance gaps between lower and high-income students remain deplorable.

In response to these data on low completion, initiatives such as Completion by Design and Achieving the Dream have encouraged community colleges nationwide to be committed to improving student success.  But changing culture and finding new ways to measure accountability is difficult for practitioners who have survived on anecdotal success stories and feelings of doing good work for decades.

Increased attention around redesigning advising is setting the stage for this cultural change around the approach to student support services. The addition of a success coach initiative can help struggling institutions focus on achievement gaps, build momentum, and graduate employable students to contribute to our workforce.

Student initiatives such as success coaching are being introduced on college campuses to help improve outcomes.  Implementation often leads to initiative fatigue and confusion about where to focus efforts, leading to resistance to change from college partners.  However, the Community College Research Center’s research on technology-mediated advising reform has found that technology, combined with efforts to restructure the student experience, can be a catalyst for transformational change.

In 2015, Central Carolina Community College was awarded a $9.2 million First in the World Validation Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  This initiative, titled Carolina Works, addresses low success rates by implementing student success coaching as a validated intervention at 10 North Carolina community colleges. The 21 success coaches across the state also use common web-based early alert/advising software that includes predictive analytics to show student risk of retention and course success.

So far the project design has validated Bettinger and Baker (2014), which advocated for the positive and significant impact of proactive, individualized student success coaching on student retention. Carolina Works presents an opportunity to yield findings focused on making strategic reforms and the effects of success coaching on persistence and completion outcomes for at-risk students.  This project enhances the work documented by Bettinger and Baker (2014) by introducing a comprehensive, web-based, early alert system powered by predictive analytics into the creation of success coaches’ caseload. This practice focuses the success coaches’ practice to better target at-risk students who could benefit most from support.

Success coaching is a proactive intervention using “just in time” data to increase student retention and completion.  Central Carolina Community College has already seen positive impact utilizing this approach, but proving that this intervention positively impacts student retention and completion is only possible through a Randomized Controlled Trial. Through the First in the World, Carolina Works project, we are testing the impact of the intervention at 10 North Carolina Community Colleges.

Success coaches are training using the Appreciative Advising framework which assists coaches in their approach to students. Through this framework, coaches are able to craft positive, open-ended questions (discover phase) that encourage an ongoing relationship between the coach and the student (dream phase). Establishing an ongoing relationship (disarm phase) with a student allows coaches to intervene when a student begins to experience barriers (don’t settle phase). Coaches work with students to remove barriers to success, develop meta-academic skills (design phase), and access other resources on campus (deliver phase).

Appreciative Advising is effective because students are looking for a personalized relationship with someone who is mutually invested in their success.  This framework provides faculty and staff a method of developing and sustaining this relationship.  Taking a relational approach with students provides them with a network of support at the college to celebrate student achievements and help navigate obstacles. Integrating technology can assist in identifying these achievements and obstacles while also providing “just-in-time” information for staff to prioritize outreach to at risk students.  

Reframing a college’s approach to student success may reveal policies, processes, and gaps in communication that present obstacles for students.  Streamlining the student experience to eliminate obstacles can lead to informed organizational restructuring.   This holistic approach to creating a community of support for students has the ability to improve student retention and completion outcomes and transform college wide conversations around student success.

Sarah Hoffarth is Project Director for the First in the World Grant at Central Carolina Community College (Sanford, NC); she is also a doctoral student in the Higher Education Administration program at NC State University. Dr. Brian Merritt is Vice President of Student Learning at Central Carolina Community College.

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