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Three students walk to class wearing backpacks and holding books

Students share how institutional policies and practices can promote or deter their success.

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Understanding the student perspective is key to higher ed providing services and resources to support student success. The Partnership for College Completion, alongside its Student Advisory Council, conducted a series of student interviews to establish the nonprofit’s advocacy and research agenda and to highlight students’ lived experiences.

PCC published its findings in a Jan. 24 report, highlighting three areas of consideration for higher education practitioners to improve students’ perceptions and engagement in their campus community.

The themes—access, needs from advisers and mentors, and the role of peer support—emerged from student interviews using open-ended questions.

Barriers to support: Students identified some barriers that hindered their access to on-campus resources and services, including:

  • Communication. Some students spoke about a lack of resources or lack of information about resources, while others shared they were unable to utilize existing resources. Students advocated for additional communication from their institution to clarify what is available and how they can be accessed.
  • Availability. Timing and scheduling of service offerings can prohibit students’ use of resources or discouraged them from accessing resources at all. For students who commute, timing of events also limited their participation, they said.
  • Staff interactions. Beyond the availability of staff, how students perceive their interactions with staff can also make them less likely to engage with a department. Two students told PCC they stopped reaching out to an office because they felt staff did not have any interest in helping them.

Importance of mentorship: Students said they feel most appreciated by their advisers when advisers recognize their needs, backgrounds and circumstances. One student shared that when her adviser validated her goals and partnered with her to establish a plan, she felt empowered to continue with her work.

Having mentors and advisers with shared lived experiences or from similar racial backgrounds is also important to students. Interviewees spoke about cultural unspokens, such as a first-generation Latina student feeling responsible as a family caregiver, that felt invisible to advisers of different backgrounds. Students also valued learning from people with relevant professional experiences who reflected their experiences in major, age or socioeconomic background.

Peer role in belonging: Because of gaps in services or information, peer support plays a key role in connecting students to campus. Students said they learned about resources primarily from word of mouth.

A lack of connection to peers can also hinder students’ willingness to get involved or reach out for support. Students of color at predominantly white institutions shared that they relied on one another to navigate campus and build a sense of belonging.

Recommendations: In light of its findings, PCC offers three recommendations for higher education stakeholders.

  1. Empower students as decision-makers. Campus leaders should provide opportunities for students to give their opinions in unstructured ways to capture their experiences. Students should also be given a seat at the table to impact policies and processes, such as including them on governing boards. The report encourages institutions to compensate student representatives for their time if they do volunteer. 
  2. Invest in students and staff of color. Often, BIPOC stakeholders say they are fighting against institutional policies to access resources. Instead, the college or university should prioritize equitable access to mental health services, culturally affirming advising, financial aid and mentors of color. Students should be involved in this process, too, according to the report. 
  3. Foster spaces for community. Peer connection is critical to building a sense of belonging, and institutional leaders can emphasize this work by providing opportunities for peer engagement, such as funding student organizations. Students of color can shoulder invisible labor in connecting their peers, so staff should take greater oversight of this work.  

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