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A man wearing an orange T-shirt has his head down on an open textbook as he holds up a cardboard sign with the word “HELP” in capital red letters on it.

Help-seeking behaviors, such as asking instructors or TAs for help with classwork or reaching out to a peer, are strongly correlated with both academic and nonacademic success.

Nuttawan Jayawan / iStock / Getty Images +

Recent headlines have put the complexities of higher education on full display, from historically low levels of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) completion to substantial drops in enrollment. The impacts of these challenges are, in many ways, being felt the most by first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds, who often face greater barriers to persistence and completion than their peers.

To combat the inevitable fallout, higher ed institutions are doubling down on their existing efforts to support these students. But as much as colleges have begun to invest in new practices and tools to help these students navigate the complexities of life on campus, we still have a long way to go.

Make no mistake: As student success leaders ourselves, we know just how hard college leaders and their staff often work to help more students make their way through their educational journey. But we also know that sometimes, the challenge can feel two-sided.

Many institutions have established resources and supports in place for students, but students don’t always take advantage of them. Information overload and other priorities—often financial or family circumstances—compete for students’ attention, which may result in their education not being their primary focus. Institutions need to meet students’ multilayered lives not with indifference or exasperation, but with empathy, and ensure these students have access to resources that help them help themselves.

The truth is that even the act of asking for help is something that doesn’t come naturally to all students. Because first-gen students don’t have the same level of college knowledge as their continuing-generation peers, they often find it difficult to ask for help once they arrive on campus. These students are resilient and possess significant navigational cultural capital which helps them succeed in spaces not traditionally designed for them, including higher education. But that is not always enough. Familiarity with the traditional higher ed landscape makes a difference, and if students lack that familiarity, they may feel embarrassed to ask for help or not even know where to begin.

This is particularly important because so-called “help-seeking behaviors”—such as asking instructors or teaching assistants for help with classwork or reaching out to a peer—are strongly correlated with both academic and nonacademic success. According to a study of 12,000 undergraduate college students, first-gen students are less likely to interact with their instructors, work on research with faculty and communicate with instructors, perpetuating long-known gaps in academic achievement. Similarly, recent research has revealed that first-gen students who don’t seek out assistance when they are uncertain about nonacademic aspects of college—course registration, how to buy a parking pass or applying for scholarships—are more likely to report a lower GPA than those who do.

If they care about helping students succeed, institutions have a responsibility to promote help-seeking behaviors so that students can get the help they need when they need it, and from trusted, reliable sources. But what does that work look like in practice? Based on the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona’s own efforts to encourage help-seeking, here are three recommendations for institutions looking to promote help-seeking on their own campuses.

Increase advising capacity. According to a 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, just 55 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges say they’ve received fundamental academic advising. This disparity is often because there is greater student need than the number of advisers at an institution can handle—and without a clear sense of whom to ask for help, students often get stuck and end up not reaching out.

To address this challenge, our team at Cal Poly Pomona launched a new model in which, for the first time, every undergraduate student was assigned a professional staff academic adviser to help them reach their academic, career, and personal goals. That increase in adviser capacity makes it easier to reach more students, and just as importantly, it means more students know who one of their primary sources of support is, and how to reach that person.

Provide support early and often. Rather than waiting for students to reach out to us, institutions should also find ways to offer targeted assistance to them. Finding ways to reach out early and often—be that for academic or nonacademic purposes—both improves persistence and increases the likelihood of degree completion.

In partnership with faculty, we’re putting that idea into practice with Cal Poly Pomona’s Early Support team, which proactively offers students who are struggling with coursework assistance in the form of referrals, resources and one-on-one-meetings. This individualized early intervention created the conditions needed for students to actively seek help—and greatly improved student retention: in Spring 2023, students who attended an Early Support meeting were retained at a rate of 70.8 percent, compared to 21 percent who did not enroll for Fall 2023.

Know when technology can help. Proactive outreach is clearly a key component of the success of these programs—but is a major undertaking for humans alone. This is where technology comes in.

For us, that’s come in the form of Billy Chat, an AI-powered chatbot that every undergraduate student at Cal Poly Pomona can communicate with via text message. Because it is available 24/7, Billy is available to answer questions even when our advisers are not; we’ve heard from students that they find Billy easy to talk to, which makes them more likely to ask the bot questions proactively. Billy can nudge students in the right direction, providing them with guidance that leads them to on-campus resources; as one student put it: “I talked to my adviser for the first time because Billy told me who that person was.”

And because of the unique approach to communication developed by the higher ed AI platform Mainstay, which created Billy, the responses students receive aren’t the sterile information you might expect from a chatbot. They’re infused with humor, empathy and even silly GIFs, and they’re carefully monitored by our team to ensure that any question requiring human intervention gets elevated right away.

With all the responsibilities that institutional leaders and staff must balance, it can be all too easy to put the onus of help-seeking on students themselves.

But investing in efforts to encourage help-seeking behavior is a crucial part of any effort to support persistence, retention and student success. By taking the extra steps to ensure first-gen and low-income students feel seen, heard and supported on campus, we can help them reach a new level of trust, assuredness and security that helps them navigate college life with confidence.

Cecilia Santiago-González is associate vice president of student success, and Zoe Lance is the communications specialist in the Office of Student Success, at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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