Standing Guard at the Edge of the Cliff


I may have mentioned in previous blogs that one task I want to complete this summer is that of scanning every high school transcript and scrutinizing ACT or SAT scores for all of our incoming freshman.  I want to see if there are red flags that might indicate a student’s need for a Success Coach before that individual enters the first class.  Is there a particular subject that constantly shows low achievement?  Are grades fine in ninth grade but slide downward until the end of senior year, or vice versa? Are grades or scores all over the place?  How is the student’s attendance record for every year of high school?  Did the student try AP courses or do the minimum needed to apply for college?

I know this task is easier with 400 new freshmen than with 4,000, but perhaps it is information that our success coach program needs to help new students avoid a scary first semester GPA.  Having a low GPA first semester is just too close to the cliff.  If we could assign a coach to a freshman student who has one, two or more red flags, for one-on-one meetings twice a week, could we help that student start off strong academically and get into a pattern of good time management and study habits?  First semester freshman year retention rate is something every institution strives to increase.  It is critical for graduation rates.

About three years ago during fall freshman orientation, I was asked to speak to parents about our student success program.  At the end of my talk, a couple came up to tell me that their daughter would most definitely benefit from having a success coach.  She was an excellent softball player and had applied to college basically to continue playing her sport.  During her high school years she had done only the minimum amount of work necessary to apply to play sports in college.  Her motivation for achieving academically was low.  She had no idea what she wanted to do in life and no desire to think about it.

I explained to the parents that we only assign coaches to students who are already on academic warning or probation and that we had many resources for all freshmen including a semester of classes with other freshmen about adjustment to college and the rigor of college academics.  The mother seemed satisfied with my answer but the father said to me quietly as he walked away. “You’ll see my daughter second semester.”  He was exactly right.  I was assigned this young lady for spring semester and saw in our first meeting her lack of motivation for college studies.  Her interest in taking more math and English, history and science after having just taken those same classes in high school was nil.

All of our professional degrees have a strong underpinning in the liberal arts.  These courses are prerequisites for upper level courses.  A typical freshman takes math, English, sociology, psychology, etc. along with an introductory class in a field of their choice during their first year.  My student (Miss A) needed a jolt or coursework in something that she had never studied before.  She needed a class to be excited about and happy to be attending each week.  So after getting permission from several deans, the registrar and other people in authority on campus, we changed Miss A’s schedule to include not one but three introductory classes in three different fields of study leading to professional degrees, with the stipulation that she take two core knowledge classes during the summer.

I definitely saw a tiny spark in Miss A’s eyes as we changed her schedule and quickly enrolled her in the new classes.  That spark continued to grow into a small fire and then a blaze in tow subjects as the semester progressed.  She got off academic warning that spring, did well in summer school, and long story short, will graduate next May.  She wants to be a Federal Marshall.  She and I text now and then to talk by phone but when I see her now, it is usually on the softball field – her true passion.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.