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What It Takes for High-Risk Students to Thrive in Higher Ed

Higher education tends to focus on that first-level goal for students. When they reach it, we check the box, congratulate them and send them off. But it can be so much more.
Higher education tends to focus on that first-level goal for students. When they reach it, we check the box, congratulate them and send them off. But it can be so much more.

Sometimes students need extra support to reach their full potential. It can come in the form of tutoring, financial aid and many other resources. Ensuring students, especially high-risk students, have the tools to succeed ensures better workers entering the professional world and a stronger workforce.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did Illinois Central College decide to introduce academic coaching?

Sheila Quirk-Bailey (SQB): When we were looking to improve our students’ outcomes, we made student success the focus of our five-year strategic plan. We focused on student best practices at community colleges that reduce achievement gaps, especially for students of color and low-income students. We are an Achieving the Dream college, so we understood that one of the most impactful practices has been advising redesign. Students need to have someone who is theirs, whom they can engage with to feel supported and understood. That connection with students needs to be much deeper and more comprehensive than just helping them choose their classes for the next semester. So, we built advising redesign into our five-year strategic plan, which was completely focused on helping more students succeed more. We wanted to increase the success rates of our part-time students, students who began in developmental courses and Black students. While Illinois Central College has always had a student success rate well above the national average, those student subgroups were not sharing fully in that success. Our strategic plan was based on equity, striving to produce more equitable outcomes across all our student groups.

Evo: This really speaks to new models that colleges and universities are adopting to execute their missions.

SQB: Absolutely. As I said, focusing on student success changes your perspective. It’s not that you were not a great college previously, but the student success and equity lens bring into focus the student experience “between silos.” A college can have excellence in all of its departments, but the student experience crosses those silos. How effective are their transitions between departments, and how many steps are they navigating in the process? Do students get lost in the transition? Are there barriers between those departmental processes? We try to view the entire process as a student success journey, as opposed to “do we have the very best financial aid department that meets all the federal requirements?” Colleges can have excellence in individual departments and still not be providing the excellent experience that enables student success.

Evo: Black or low-income students are traditionally classified as high-risk learners. How has academic success coaching helped support their success?

SQB: It has been invaluable. For students to know that they have a person who is theirs, who will help them no matter what, really breaks that mindset of “I’m not college material.” If you are the first in your family to attend college, if you were not at the top of your class, if you have been told that you’re not college material—any little bump in the road can be taken as a reaffirmation of your lack of ability, causing students to drop out or sometimes not even start. You will hear students say things like, “Well, I don’t even know how to apply” or “I don’t even know where to go to ask my question. See, I knew I wasn’t college material—I don’t know how to do college.” This mindset then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Through coaching, you can turn that around to reinforce, “Absolutely, you can be successful, and we have all kinds of programs to help you be successful. Our job is to help you be successful. I am your person to enable your success.” That proactive approach can make all the difference, especially for students who are unsure whether they can succeed.

Evo: What other support structures can community colleges introduce to ensure learners are engaged both inside and outside the classroom?

SQB: We are an Achieving the Dream college, and they have documented many best practices. Another best practice involves the approach to developmental education. Currently in this country, high schools are judged based on standards that aren’t aligned with how colleges assess college readiness. There is a gap in student learning. High-performing students can usually bridge that gap, but the typical student often does not. When you begin community college in developmental education, you are twice as likely not to complete your program of study. So, that was another goal of our strategic plan. We have now completely integrated multiple measures of college readiness. Some of those placement measures include high school transition classes provided in both math and English. If students pass those classes, they begin college-ready.

We have determined, based on our data, that if a student had a 2.7 GPA in math and English, they will succeed our gateway courses in math and English. These students are no longer required to take a placement test; they start college-ready. If a student just missed those measures in math or English, they have an option to start in a college-ready course and also attend an aligned tutoring program as they complete the course. This allows the student to succeed without losing a semester (or more) in developmental education. We have done everything we can to help students start college-ready and succeed. What is exciting about these initiatives is that students placed through these alternative methods are at least as successful, if not more successful, than students who were placed by the Accuplacer test. Thanks to our Strategic Planning Innovation Team, we have reduced our math developmental education placements by 35% with no reduction in success in the subsequent math or English course.

Evo: How can folks like registrars, whom we’ve previously thought of as existing behind the scenes, start to play a bigger role in supporting the degree progression for students and help them understand the different components that go into earning a degree?

SQB: The Registrar’s Office has a key role to play in student success. They’re the keepers of the data. They understand how students move through college systems. We have developed student profiles. We know our typical student is a 28-year-old female who only takes two courses a semester. The Registrar’s Office knows where that student may struggle and stop out. They see the patterns. For example, when we were working on our academic plans for completion, it was interesting to see that, you know what, Pell does not pay for more than 60 credit hours of an associate’s degree. We have programs that require over 60 credits. What do the low-income students in these programs do when they run out of funding? They typically do not complete. They put in all this wonderful work and now don’t have a degree to show for it. Those kinds of patterns jump off the page for a registrar.

The Registrar’s Office can be a partner with the Institutional Research Office (IR to put together the student patterns that inform and enrich coaching. This work supports our students in making better choices and increases the likelihood of their success.

Evo: From a programmatic perspective, how can stackable models help drive persistence and success for learners, especially given the higher instances of stop-outs and dropouts in the community college space?

SQB: Stackable credentials are critical. What gets in the way of student completion is life. Stackable credentials allow students who can only commit to one semester to earn a credential. We do not need to risk them stopping out on a longer degree track. They can earn a credential, take a break and settle into a new job. They can earn a higher income and open their first checking account. They may be able to live independently for the first time. These changes can be stressful. We need to understand that they may want a break. But we should not let them out the door without saying, “Now you have the level one certificate, so if you need to take some time off, no problem. Should we contact you in six months or a year to register you in the level-two certificate or in your gen eds for the degree? Also, depending on where you go to work, your company may pay for you to continue your education. Be sure to ask.” As individuals move forward with their careers, we can be a stable, proactive partner to help them navigate their continued professional development.

Higher education tends to focus on that first-level goal for students. When they reach it, we check the box, congratulate them and send them off. Our student engagement needs to establish lifelong relationships. We need to treat it as a lifelong process. We need systems that help us track student progression, so we can help individuals continue to improve and grow.

It really is a position of privilege for a recent high school graduate to have the capacity and resources to go straight to a four-year institution and complete in four years. There are people whose lives just are not that simple and who need to take other routes. There is more than one route to success. For example, let’s discuss nursing. It is a very difficult program to be accepted into and to complete. If individuals do not have the resources to complete a nursing degree in four straight years at a university, they can still become nurses. We can provide incredibly high-quality, low-cost pathways to a nursing career. Students can earn their CNA in high school through dual credit. Next, they can come to ICC for the one-year LPN program. We currently have three different grants that pay for this program including wraparound supports for people of color or low-income people. As an LPN, students can become employed at one of our local hospital systems. Both hospital systems will pay for LPNs to earn their RN. Then, if they’re interested, the systems will also pay for them to get their BSN. This credentialing model provides a low-income person, who did not have the resources to go to school, with a path to become a nurse with no student debt.

In order for student support to be effective, it must be comprehensive and holistic. For example, we work with InsideTrack, a student success nonprofit that uses evidence-based coaching methodologies, to provide one-on-one student coaching that’s centered on what our learners need. We also have programs that pay stipends to our students to go to school and pay for transportation and childcare. Our apprenticeship programs employ students full time while they learn. They are hired as employees before they start the program, and they are paid while they are in the classroom and while they work.

An adult working two or three part-time jobs to put food on the table cannot just stop working one of those jobs to earn a credential. These individuals are stuck and cannot retrain for a better future without support. We have programs that provide free childcare. We have programs that provide transportation support. We have programs that pay stipends while students are in class. We have a grant for our truck driver program that provides stipends while they train. We teach boot camp-style CDL courses that take a month of full-time attendance to complete. We will pay students $13 an hour while they are in class. Now, they can work less and earn a credential. These individuals can go from having never had a full-time job with benefits to making $50,000 to $60,000 with benefits in one month. That is life-changing.

We must start thinking about everything differently and meet people where they are to get them to where they need to be. When individuals earn credentials with labor market value, it not only changes the trajectory of their lives but also that of their families, all while expanding the workforce, growing businesses and enhancing the region’s economic vibrancy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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