Diane Wojdag has stopped and started a few times en route to a college degree. Since beginning school at Northeastern University 20 years ago, she has left three different universities one diploma short when life -- a daughter’s illness, her own diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and a layoff -- got in the way.
Now, Wojdag, a project director for a software corporation, is back at Northeastern, working with a personal coach that she says is helping her stay on track to complete her associate degree in management information systems by June -- and then move on to tackle her bachelor’s in leadership.
“Whenever I have an issue, or just you know, am trying to get through the bureaucracy of schools and things like that, she’s right there to help me out,” Wojdag said of her coach, Meaghan Joyce.
“I told Meaghan, ‘You know what? I think I may actually do it this time.’ ”
Wojdag’s coach is provided free of charge by Northeastern University, one of 15 colleges and universities that has contracts with InsideTrack,  a San Francisco-based private company that says it bolsters retention and enrollment by offering personal coaches to students and prospective students.
Modeled after the corporate world’s executive coaches, InsideTrack coaches aim to connect students’ long-term goals with their short-term futures, said Alan Tripp, the company’s CEO and founder. Success coaches help students navigate such potential stumbling blocks as class registration and child care, focusing on seven major areas including commitment to graduation, time management, finances, academics, and health.
Most of the coaching occurs over the telephone lines, from InsideTrack’s San Francisco headquarters and Portland call center. The full-time coaches, hired primarily for their interpersonal talents, undergo a four-level certification process; 20-30 percent of the coaching staff holds an advanced degree, Tripp said.
“We are introducing more structure and positive feedback into the lives of college students, in a way that dramatically affects their behavior and outcomes. When we work with students, their probability of dropping out is reduced by about a third. Their chances of success are increased, as well as their engagement and satisfaction with the program,” said Tripp, who founded and sold SCORE! Educational Centers, a network of K-12 academic centers, before founding InsideTrack in 1999.
Colleges can use InsideTrack’s services at a rate of about $30 to $120 a month per student, depending on the intensity of services offered, and InsideTrack also offers personal coaches to students who don’t attend universities affiliated with the company. But while InsideTrack has been gaining steam -- its revenue growing, Tripp says, at a rate of 100 percent each year -- some administrators question why a college would outsource its efforts to advise and retain students.
“There is a lot of resistance or has been in some cases by the student affairs people to this work,” said Robert H. Atwell, president emeritus of the American Council on Education and a member of InsideTrack’s advisory board. “Sometimes they say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ But if you have a very high drop-out rate, the evidence is that it’s not been done well.”
He added: “I think that’s a big hurdle for InsideTrack to overcome, the innate resistance to outsourcing. But where InsideTrack is able to land contracts, I think that resistance disappears.”
Tripp asserts that hiring InsideTrack doesn’t amount to outsourcing because the company offers a new service that’s substantially different from the typical advising colleges offer. InsideTrack’s coaches focus primarily on life effectiveness skills, rather than strictly on academics, and students are encouraged by their coaches to tap into institutional resources, in turn increasing demand for existing on-campus services, Tripp said.
“I think there was a bit of suspicion when we first started,” said Christopher Hopey, vice president and dean of Northeastern University’s School of Professional and Continuing Services, which piloted InsideTrack’s services last year.
Echoing Atwell’s sentiments, Hopey said resistance faded when the results of Northeastern’s first year of work with InsideTrack proved overwhelmingly positive -- the university saw approximately 40 percent increases in enrollment and persistence among the 600 adult students who received coaching. “The reality is, they’ve given us a great service,” said Hopey, who added that InsideTrack frees on-campus advisors to focus more intently on academics and that it would be cost-prohibitive for advisors to do the kind of time-intensive coaching InsideTrack can offer.
Andy Carrier, interim dean of students at Ottawa University, which began a one-year contract with InsideTrack in July, said the university is expanding its on-campus services and is in the midst of hiring a persistence director. “InsideTrack is just one more piece of the puzzle that may help identify problems early for students,” Carrier said.
Charlie L. Nutt, associate director for the National Academic Advising Association, said his organization would support any university’s effort to broaden its advising services, but stressed that any outside services should be viewed as supplemental to on-campus resources. “All the literature goes back to the point that one-on-one interaction with someone actually on a campus is most clearly connected with success,” Nutt said.
Carrier said Ottawa University would look closely at InsideTrack’s model to determine if the institution can one day provide similar services in-house. “But in the meantime, [the contract with InsideTrack is] helping us grow and do our own internal assessments of where our programs are and how the environment’s changing,” he said.
Ultimately, some experts on advising say it can’t hurt colleges, which are in general struggling with issues of student persistence, to have another tool in their toolbox. “In the ideal, I think that this is the kind of program that colleges and universities should be doing with their students,” said Stuart Hunter, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. “Ideally, it should be done with existing staff at colleges and universities, throughout faculty and throughout the curriculum.”
“But student success is important, and if InsideTrack is providing a service that an institution doesn’t feel it can provide itself, then that’s not a bad thing.”