Casting Its Lot With a Start-Up

After eliminating dozens of student services jobs, the University of Akron hired a company with no higher ed footprint to provide "success coaching" to students, in large part because it cost less.

August 7, 2015

The University of Akron's decision last month to hire an outside entity to provide "success coaches" to supplement its academic advising and counseling services hardly breaks new ground; scores of colleges and universities have begun doing so, as pressure grows on them to ensure that students persist and graduate.

Akron's move is drawing scrutiny, though, for a couple of reasons. It announced the plan as the campus was roiling from the budget-driven decision to eliminate dozens of jobs from its student success division, and faculty members questioned whether the coaches were necessary when the university already has a strong freshman orientation program. And the university chose to award an $840,000 contract for a one-year pilot project to a local start-up, known as Trust Navigator, that has no track record in providing such services. (The only other bidder for the project, InsideTrack, is the established leader in the market.)

Officials at the university defend their decision. The success coaches, Akron administrators say, will supplement, not in any way replace, the 350-odd employees who remain in Akron's student success division after the layoffs, and the coaching arrangement is just the latest step in a multiyear effort that has already raised first-year retention of Akron freshmen to nearly 74 percent from 67 percent in two years.

They acknowledge Trust Navigator's lack of experience -- "you've got to have a first customer," says the new company's co-founder, Tom Roulston III -- but express guarded confidence that together they can pull off the goal of providing success coaches to 4,000 freshmen this fall.

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"We're going to have to work very hard with this company," says Stacey Moore, Akron's associate vice president for student success.

A Difficult Year

Akron has had a bumpy few months under its new president, Scott Scarborough, who took over in June 2014. In May, some alumni and students pushed back hard against suggestions (which administrators said was never a real possibility) that the university might change its name to Ohio Polytechnic Institute. Then last month, university officials said they would cut 215 nonfaculty jobs, including all employees of the university's press, over the next three years as part of a plan to erase a $60 million budget shortfall. More than 50 of the eliminated positions were in the university's student success division.

At the same meeting at which the Board of Trustees announced the budget cuts, the board approved the hiring of Trust Navigator to provide "success coaching" to the university's 4,000 freshmen. The use of success coaching has grown in higher education in recent years, as colleges -- under growing pressure to retain and graduate students, for financial reasons and to better fulfill their missions -- look for additional ways to help students. The efforts usually supplement traditional academic advising and counseling services, often with a focus on life skills, time management and the like. A 2011 study by a Stanford University researcher, which focused on InsideTrack, validated that the approach, done with the right level of investment and expertise, can benefit students.

Akron published a request for proposals in late June that described its plan to give every incoming student a success coach like this: "Success coaches will work closely with academic advisors and stay connected to the student through graduation. Each success coach will follow his or her assigned students throughout their college career and assist these students with time management, exam preparation, financial planning, career planning and other drivers of success …. The success coach helps to ensure that every student feels supported to succeed and will meet with assigned students at least monthly. Success coaches will be assigned students to proactively engage, monitor and direct to various university resources that will most likely help those students persist, learn, develop, graduate and begin their careers."

Two companies submitted proposals by the July 7 deadline. One, InsideTrack, has worked with more than 700,000 students on scores of campuses since its founding in 2001. The company pitched Akron officials on its services in 2013, but nothing came of it.

The other applicant was Trust Navigator, which, according to an Akron alternative weekly, The Devil Strip, was incorporated this past spring as a successor to an earlier entity, LifeLaunch (which is what Trust Navigator calls its student success curriculum). Roulston, whose family has a decades-long history of financial investing in Cleveland, is described as the "chief ambassador" on the nonprofit company's staff page and said in an interview that company officials "cold-called" administrators at Akron and other Northeast Ohio universities because they wanted to focus on "a limited number of places in our backyard." Roulston dismissed the idea, promulgated by some critics, that the company had some kind of personal connection that gave it an edge in the competition for the project.

A Tale of Two Applicants

That impression was no doubt produced in part by the nature of the two competitors and how they fared in Akron's decision-making process. The scoring rubric that Akron used to rate the proposals emphasized price above all other factors (by a 10-to-1 ratio), which tipped the scales significantly in Trust Navigator's favor, given that its bid came in at $840,000, about half of InsideTrack's recommended higher-priced option. (It also had an alternative at $1.3 million, and said it "would be happy to work with them on a version that would be of even lower price," said Dave Jarrat, a spokesman for InsideTrack.)

Trust Navigator also earned significant extra points for promising to support the Akron economy by hiring local and regional employees, and by hiring significantly from among the university's graduates, said Moore, the Akron associate vice president. "It was really important to us to have a really clear, on-campus, in-person approach, as we believe all our initiatives need to be relationship-based with students," she said. "And their commitment to us to hire recent graduates, University of Akron alumni, as the primary hires was appealing."

InsideTrack traditionally leans heavily on a team of coaches who deal with students primarily by telephone and other long-distance modes, although Jarrat said that InsideTrack told Akron officials that it was "open" to having on-site coaches. "We've done that at other universities," he said.

The factors Akron emphasized are reasonable ones for a public university to weigh. But a product's price means very little without knowing something about its quality, and that is where Trust Navigator's complete lack of a track record might have given Akron officials pause.

(Perhaps tellingly, none of the criteria the university used in the search explored the firms' track records or ability to prove their efficacy; the closest factor asked the applicants to list any nearby campus clients they had lost in the past five years. Neither InsideTrack nor Trust Navigator listed one.)

Trust Navigator lists only three employees on its website, and the implementation plan included in its proposal called for the training of coaches to be occurring by now, and student meetings to start by freshman orientation in late August. Yet Roulston acknowledged in an interview that the company has not yet begun hiring any of the 20 prospective coaches yet.

"We don't have start-up time -- [Akron] wanted to do it this fall, which may be faster than is really feasible," he said. "But they want to do it, we want to do it, so we're going to have to do it. We will begin delivering success coaching to all 4,000 freshmen in the next 30 days. We're not physically going to be able to hire enough competent people to fully populate where we want to get to for longer-term goals, but we'll be able to introduce this concept at orientation."

Roulston, who said he and co-founder Rob Reho have started multiple companies and worked with hundreds of young people as employees and interns at those companies, insisted that Trust Navigator should not be judged by the sparse state of its current website or its seemingly thin staff.

He said the company was getting volunteer help -- in the hundreds of hours -- from a "technology person" who worked for a major hospital system in Akron, a human resources professional who filled that function at Aon, and others. It is building an online platform and developing its curriculum, in addition to talking to "a lot of very qualified [coaching] candidates who have expressed interest," Roulston said.

And while Akron may be the company's first client, there will soon be others.

"Somebody had to be the first to announce -- it happened to be Akron. But we will be on other campuses this fall," Roulston said, though he declined to name them. "I don't want to sound cavalier about this, but we know what the hell we are doing."

One university that won't be working with Trust Navigator -- at least right now -- is West Virginia University. The company listed the university's president, E. Gordon Gee, as a reference and included a sample contract with West Virginia in its proposal to Akron. Gee got to know Roulston and his colleagues when Gee was president of Ohio State University (and made it his business to meet virtually every person with money in the state).

Gee said he and others at West Virginia were impressed by what they heard from Trust Navigator during their discussions -- "they are smart and capable people" -- but decided that the university had significant internal work to do in improving its own student services operation before it could consider layering in outside success coaches.

Gee said West Virginia officials "do have some substantive questions" about whether going with a company with no track record would be "too big a leap" for the university. "These are exactly the questions we're asking."

He described himself, though, as "the biggest risk taker in America" -- "I buy a pig in a poke all the time" -- because "if you go with the proven vendor, what everyone else is going with, you're going to be in the same place everyone else will be. If you go with the 'leap' strategy, you can get substantial reinvention."

Gee added a caveat, however, that could apply to administrators at Akron if the hiring of Trust Navigator doesn't pan out.

"The problem with the leap strategy," said Gee, who started his academic career at Brigham Young University, "is, if it doesn't work, I'll be pumping gas in Provo, Utah."


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