Coach Knows Best

Student coaching appears to pay off by boosting retention and graduation rates. Does outsourcing coaching make sense if a private company does it best?

May 24, 2013

The outsourcing of student coaching and advising appears to be less controversial than it was when InsideTrack, a private company that provides coaches via phone, arrived on the scene in 2001.

For one thing, colleges are feeling plenty of pressure to step up their game in getting students to graduation. That probably makes it harder to criticize their use of outside help on coaching. And some college leaders argue that InsideTrack’s brand of advising is simply better than what they can do in-house.

“We have to focus on our core competencies,” said Barbara Karlin, vice president of academic affairs at Golden Gate University. She said InsideTrack brings a level of expertise “that I would bet no university has.”

Golden Gate is a private university located in San Francisco with a heavy focus on adult students. The university began contracting with InsideTrack, which is also located in San Francisco, for enrollment advising and new student inquiries in 2010.

After signing up, Karlin said the university conducted “secret shopping” calls to see how InsideTrack stacked up against university enrollment advisers. She said university officials were impressed with the outside firm’s professionalism and the personal connections coaches were able to make with student. They avoided a “hard sell” approach, she said, but also substantially boosted the number of students who enrolled after an initial inquiry.

The internal group of enrollment advisers didn’t perform as well. “They did just fine,” Karlin said. “But there wasn’t that connection.”

As a result, the university made the tough decision to replace all of its enrollment advisers with InsideTrack. From Karlin’s perspective, the difference is the quality of the training InsideTrack’s coaches go through. The company identifies potential coaches with the right skills and then develops them, Karlin said, which is something she and her staff can’t do as well.

“I don’t know what to look for specifically in someone who’s going to be coaching a student,” she said. “I know how to hire a teacher better.”

Therapist and Taskmaster

InsideTrack seems to have somewhat of a lock on the market for outside college coaches. But many colleges offer similar student supports themselves, said Stuart Hunter, associate vice president and executive director of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina.

Hunter said the college "completion agenda" is helping to spur more institutions to create student success centers like the one South Carolina recently built. Those centers often include coaching, she said, as well as tutoring, supplemental instruction and other services.

InsideTrack's coaches aren't physically on campuses. But the company's model is one-on-one coaching via phone***All of this above - up to the break - is new. Help at all? - PF. Pre-enrollment advising is a relatively new evolution of the company, which originally focused solely on coaching for students once they had been admitted. So far InsideTrack's advisers have worked with more than 500,000 students -- currently more than 20,000 a month.

The coaches act much like a parent, Karlin said, albeit one who knows the best ways to keep a student on track.

Research has found that students often fail to complete courses or degree programs because of non-academic reasons – experts often use the cliché “life got in the way.” That can mean anything from complications at work, financial or relationship problems or how to get their kid to daycare. And these challenges are particularly common among adult students or those from underserved backgrounds, who often lack the family support and resources of their wealthier peers.

In recordings of calls with students, which are available on the company’s website, InsideTrack coaches sound like a mix of therapist, gentle taskmaster and savvy expert on how college works.

A male student in one recorded call tells a coach that he is struggling with spending too much time caring for friends, and has a hard time saying no. The coach gently tells him that he needs to “rest and recharge,” and that in the “career path you are projecting yourself into, you will need to practice some of these skills with boundaries.”

In another call, a coach asks an adult student – a U.S. military veteran – if he has any scheduling obstacles in the next week. He answers that he has to spend time on appointments with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that are related to his service-connected disability, time he usually spends on homework.

“What is your plan for making sure that you’re able to still get the assignments that you’re going to be working on this week done?” the coach asks.

The student says he plans to get as much of the coursework done in the first part of the week. The coach checks on his progress on specific projects, and then says it sounds like he has a solid plan in place.

InsideTrack’s coaches work out of call centers in San Francisco, Nashville and Portland, Oregon. All of the coaches hold undergraduate degrees, company officials said, and many also hold advanced degrees.

The company’s clients include four-year institutions with residential campuses, professional and online programs at colleges, for-profit institutions and community colleges.

Pricing depends on the nature of the partnership, said Dave Jarrat, InsideTrack’s vice president of marketing. Factors include the form and intensity of coaching used, the baseline student retention performance of colleges, and clients’ goals for improvement. As a result, the price for an initial two-to-three-year engagement between a college and the company ranges from a few hundred thousand dollars to several million, company officials said. But the services pay for themselves within 15 months, they said, thanks to enrollment and retention gains.

InsideTrack has worked with institutions ranging from DeVry University to Penn State University, the University of Dayton and Brandman University.

Part of the appeal for colleges is that the company has developed a predictive model that helps institutions determine which students can be most helped by coaching. The company said that through more targeted “interventions,” colleges can boost their retention numbers. And the data appear to back up that claim.

InsideTrack turned over a trove of information to two researchers at Stanford University, who conducted an independent analysis on the impact of the company’s coaching. According to the results of the study, which were released two years ago, retention rates improved by up to 15 percent among students who received coaching. And graduation rates went up 13 percent.

For-Profit, for Completion

Community colleges are feeling plenty of heat about boosting completion rates. But two-year institutions generally don’t have the same amount of money to throw at the problem as do, say, flagship public universities.

At least one community college has given InsideTrack a whirl, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Wallace State Community College, located in Alabama, is the lead institution in a consortium that is sharing $9.5 million from the feds to help adult and displaced workers train and find jobs in manufacturing, allied health, public safety and transportation fields. The grant is part of a larger pot of $2 billion in Labor Department funding for community colleges.

Wallace State is focusing on student advising with the grant money. The college brought in InsideTrack to coach 850 students across three campuses. Many of the students lost vanishing jobs in manufacturing or as welders, said Suzanne Harbin, the college’s director of advancement.

“The majority of them had not been in college for a while,” she said. “They didn’t even know where to start.”

While academic advising is certainly helpful, Harbin said this group of students mostly needs encouragement, coaching and help in re-learning study skills

“We really didn’t have anyone on campus who was doing that sort of thing,” she said. “Sometimes they just need someone they can vent to.”

Initial results have been promising. On her campus, Harbin said student retention rates improved 6 percent between this spring and last fall, as compared to the previous year.

Students report that they like having coaches to call. Some spoke with their advisers 30 or more times during the fall semester. They “want to know that people care about them,” Harbin said.

Given the “completion agenda” and its goals of dramatically increasing graduation rates, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to expect that lots of community colleges might give InsideTrack a ring. But that hasn’t happened, said Jarrat.

“One of the challenges that they have is that we’re a for-profit business,” he said. “It hasn’t progressed as quickly as we’d like.”

For her part, Harbin said she’s sold on the value of paying for outside help on coaching. The college has even sent some of its advisers to train with InsideTrack so it can sustain the company’s approach after the grant money dries up.

“The return on investment is huge,” Harbin said.


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