When she became the first person in her family to graduate from college, Virginia Hughes invited the three people she credited most with getting her to that milestone: her mother, her grandmother and a retired hospital administrator named Laura Harrill.
Even though she’d been a perfect stranger until Hughes’s senior year in high school, Harrill helped her navigate the shoals of paperwork, financial issues and personal dramas that prevent many students from ever getting into, let alone completing, college. “I consider her an extension of my family,” said Hughes, of Maryville, Tenn., who graduated from Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Tennessee. “Even if I had a bad day and just needed somebody to talk to, I knew she’d be there.”
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Harrill is one of 2,785 volunteer coaches in 26 Tennessee counties who mentor students like Hughes in a privately funded, “it-takes-a-village”-style community approach aimed at guiding more high school graduates toward college and helping them earn degrees. tnAchieves, which also offers scholarships as a last resort, is among a small but growing number of similar programs underwritten by private donations, chambers of commerce, foundations, the federal government, and a handful of colleges and universities where the word “coach” no longer only refers only to someone who’s in charge of the football team.
The results, according to studies conducted by researchers at Stanford and elsewhere, are encouraging. Coaching seems to lower college dropout rates and raise the proportion of students who graduate. “If you’re low-income, if you’re first-generation, if no one in your neighborhood has ever gone to college, it can be very scary,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves. Students “might have questions we all take for granted, such as, what is a semester? What does that word mean?”
Students who were coached by phone, email, and text messages were 15 percent more likely to stay in school, the Stanford research found. Thirty-one percent earned some sort of degree within four years, a graduation rate four percentage points higher than that of their classmates who were not coached.
At Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., a coaching program paid for with money from the U.S. Department of Labor has increased the proportion of students who stay from the fall to the spring to 87 percent, about eight percentage points higher than classmates who weren’t coached.
And in Tennessee, 75 percent of students coached by tnAchieves stay in school from their first year to their second, compared to the state average of 59 percent. Twenty-six percent get associate’s degrees within three years—more than twice the 11 percent average three-year community college graduation rate for other Tennessee students.
The University of Toledo in Ohio, which hired 15 “success coaches” this fall, including several who are recent graduates themselves, found that 2,000 students hadn’t registered for courses by the deadline. So it put its coaches to work contacting the stragglers by phone, email, and even Twitter, and the number of tardy students quickly fell to 229.
“We take for granted that people know more than we think they know,” said Kaye Patten Wallace, who oversees the program and whose title is vice president of the student experience. “Having been a first-generation college student myself, I can sympathize with that. When I found myself on a college campus, I didn’t even know how to register. I had no clue. I was lost. And I see the same thing here.”
The new success coaches at Toledo will monitor online student accounts to make sure not only that they register for classes, but also that they fulfill other requirements. Faculty members have been asked to notify the coaches when students in their classes fall behind. “They’ll be the single point of contact,” Wallace said. “They won’t be telling the student to go call somebody else.”
But many higher-education institutions say personalized coaching is simply too expensive. The University of Toledo is one of the few that have taken on the cost of coaching directly, rather than underwriting it through outside contributions. With coaches paid an average of $35,000, plus benefits, and with the program confined to freshmen and sophomores among the school’s 18,130 undergraduates, the cost comes out to about $77 annually, per student. Other coaching programs cost as much as $800 per year, per student.
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“It’s a significant investment, but it’s an investment we can’t afford not to make,” said Wallace. That’s because losing the tuition from, and replacing, students who drop out can cost far more than coaching them. At Wallace State, for instance, administrators calculate that improving the retention rate by only five percentage points generates nearly $500,000 a year from additional tuition and fees.
Coaching programs also make sense as states push to increase the proportion of their populations with university degrees. In Tennessee, for example, only 32 percent of people aged 25 to 34 are college-educated, among the lowest levels in the nation. The state wants to increase that to 55 percent by 2025.
The Wallace State program is restricted to students in majors leading to jobs that are in particularly high demand in Alabama, including advanced manufacturing and nursing. The coaches are supplied by a private company called Inside Track, which subcontracts with several campuses to advise a total of 20,000 students nationwide from call centers in San Francisco, Nashville and Portland, Ore., by phoning, emailing, or texting them at least once every two weeks.
“They’ll talk to them about whether or not they’re adjusting well, if they have family support, how are their classes going, their commitment to graduating,” said Suzanne Harbin, Wallace State’s director of advancement. “Typically, if a student withdraws from school, it’s not because they’re struggling academically. It’s about all the other things that are affecting their ability to be successful.”
But the number of college coaches remains small. And most struggling students are left to figure things out for themselves. “The thing about students is, they’re not going to tell you they’re lost. They’re embarrassed. They think they’re the only ones who don’t know,” said Wallace.
As for Hughes, she hopes to become a coach herself, and help other students get through the college experience. “I’d love to know that I could do what Laura has done for me,” she said, “and have that feeling of accomplishment.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.