Student Coaching in College Produces Better Retention and Graduation Rates


In March of 2011, researchers at Stanford released a study titled, The Effects of Student Coaching in College: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Mentoring.  After much study, authors Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker concluded that, according to Bettinger, "coaching not only works, but it appears to be one of the more cost effective ways to produce better retention and graduation rates."   According to the study, students who were coached were 10-15% more likely to graduate than those who were not, and these numbers were seen across all age and gender demographics  (though the researchers found some evidence that the effect was greater for males than for females, a result which tells me that success coaching could do something to remedy the current disparity between male and female rates of college completion).

The study was a quantitative affirmation of the work in which my colleagues and I have been engaged for years, but more than being pleased that what I have come to know anecdotally has been affirmed by science, I am intrigued by the questions the study leaves unanswered. The study confirms that success coaching proved effective in the sample of students studied, but it acknowledges that there are still questions as to why. Likewise, while the study confirms that coaching can be both effective for students and cost-effective, it is hopeful that more research will be done to identify specific characteristics of coaches, types of services, and strategies that work best.

I am intrigued by these questions because they are the questions my colleagues and I discuss frequently. And just as I hope researchers continue to investigate which specific traits and practices make success coaching so effective, my colleagues and I will continue to utilize our first-hand knowledge to contribute to the conversation. For example, yesterday I finally received the results of the success coach survey we administer to our students at the end of each semester. For me, the most informative part of these surveys is always the part where students give feedback in their own words. Often, a majority of the comments echo the same themes. Students say their success coaches enable them to stay or get back "on track" by helping them plan, organize, and manage time. They appreciate our ability to help them with not only academic but also social/personal issues. They like having someone to whom they must be accountable who they also respect, trust, and feel a personal bond. Here are a few excerpts from this semester's evaluations:

“My coach really took an interest in me even though I was not having a good semester. She was always very supportive and inviting, willing to help me with whatever I needed. I went through a rough patch this semester and she was one of two people I felt I could talk to without being judged."

"My coach is a great person, and he did not only help me with school, but with personal issues. That, more than anything, is what kept me focused."

"I concentrate more when I have a success coach."

"My coach really helped me to become a student as opposed to just going to class."

"My coach was like my mom. She treated me as her son, which gave me motivation to do my work."

"I would like to thank my coach for his care and the time that he gave to me to succeed in my education. I learned not only how to organize my education, but I learned how to organize my life in total."

What traits in these success coaches made them better at their jobs? Empathy? Tenacity? An ability to wear multiple hats at the same time? Simply the time and resources that a full-time success coach has as opposed to a part-time student or faculty advisor? I have my suspicions that all of these things are crucial traits for a successful coach, but I'm also happy that colleges and universities are now studying and giving credit to programs like ours as we work day-by-day to change the futures of one or six or several hundred students at a time.

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.