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When she became the first person in her family to graduate from college, Virginia Hughes invited the three people she credits most with getting her to that momentous milestone: her mother, her grandmother, and a retired hospital administrator named Laura Harrill.

Even though she’d been a perfect stranger until Hughes’s senior year in high school, Harrill helped her navigate the shoals of paperwork, financial issues, and unexpected life events that thwart huge numbers of students from ever getting into, or completing, college.

success coaching
Wallace State Community College in Alabama assigns “success coaches” to students in high-demand majors. (Photo: Wallace State Community College)

“I consider her an extension of my family,” said Hughes, of Maryville, Tenn., who graduated from Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville and now is working toward a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Tennessee in that city. “Even if I had a bad day and just needed somebody to talk to, I knew she’d be there.”

Harrill is one of 2,785 volunteer coaches in 26 Tennessee counties who mentor students like Hughes in a privately funded, “it-takes-a-village”-style community approach called tnAchieves—or “Tennessee Achieves”—aimed at guiding more high school graduates toward college, and ultimately helping them earn degrees.

It’s among a small but growing number of similar programs underwritten by private donations, chambers of commerce, foundations, the federal government, and a handful of colleges and universities themselves where the word “coach” now no longer refers only to someone who’s in charge of an athletics team.

The early returns are impressive, suggesting that coaching lowers higher-education dropout rates and raises the proportion of students who graduate.

“Typically, if a student withdraws from school, it’s not because they’re struggling academically. It’s about all the other things that are affecting their ability to be successful,” — Suzanne Harbin, director of advancement at Wallace State.

But the need for thousands of coaches to help students fill out forms and clear endless hurdles also underscores the seemingly impenetrable complexity of going to college in the first place, beginning with the federal financial-aid process and continuing through the confusing course-registration system on campuses where 18-year-olds with little encouragement and support are largely left to fend for themselves.

“There are so many forms, and so many steps. Some of it is, I don’t even know what this is for, but I know I have to fill it out and sign it,” Hughes said, remembering the experience with exasperation.

“If you’re low-income, if you’re first-generation, if no one in your neighborhood has ever gone to college, it can be very scary,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves. Students “might have questions we all take for granted, such as, what is a semester? What does that word mean? And just when you think you’re finished, it’s, oh, no, we still need this filled out. It all becomes very arduous and frustrating for the students.”

It’s also why personalized coaching consistently helps boost the success of college students, according to studies conducted by researchers at Stanford and elsewhere. But many higher-education institutions say personalized coaching is too expensive.

Students who were coached by phone, email, and text messages were 15 percent more likely to stay in school, the Stanford research found. Thirty-one percent earned some sort of degree within four years, a graduation rate four percentage points higher than that of their classmates who were not coached.

At Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala., a coaching program paid for with money from the U.S. Department of Labor has increased the proportion of students who stay from the fall to the spring to 87 percent, about eight percentage points higher than classmates who weren’t coached.

And in Tennessee, 75 percent of students coached by tnAchieves stay in school from their first year to their second, compared to the state average of 59 percent. Twenty-six percent get associate’s degrees within three years—more than twice the 11 percent average three-year community college graduation rate for other Tennessee students.

The Tennessee program also offers scholarships from money contributed by private donors, which the students get after exhausting all other available tuition assistance—something the volunteer mentors help them do, beginning in high school, when they prod them to complete the necessary free application for federal student aid, or FAFSA.

“That’s when I realized I could pay for it,” Hughes remembered. “And then I was, like, ‘Oh my god, college!’”

The University of Toledo in Ohio, which hired 15 “success coaches” this fall, including several who are recent graduates themselves, found that 2,000 students hadn’t registered for courses by the deadline. So it put its coaches to work contacting the stragglers by phone, email, and even Twitter, and the number who were late quickly fell to 229.

“We take for granted that people know more than we think they know,” said Kaye Patten Wallace, who oversees the program and whose title is vice president of the student experience. “Having been a first-generation college student myself, I can sympathize with that. When I found myself on a college campus, I didn’t even know how to register. I had no clue. I was lost. And I see the same thing here.”

The new success coaches at Toledo will monitor online student accounts to make sure not only that they register for classes, but also that they fulfill other requirements. Faculty have been asked to notify the coaches when students in their classes fall behind.

“They’ll be the single point of contact,” Wallace said. “They won’t be telling the student to go call somebody else.”

The public university is one of the few that have taken on the cost of coaching themselves, rather than underwriting it through outside contributions. With coaches paid an average of $35,000, plus benefits, and with the program confined to freshmen and sophomores among the school’s 18,130 undergraduates, the cost comes out to about $77 annually, per student. Other coaching programs cost as much as $800 per year, per student.

“It’s a significant investment, but it’s an investment we can’t afford not to make,” said Wallace.

That’s because losing the tuition from, and replacing, students who drop out costs far more than coaching them. At Wallace State, for instance, administrators calculate that improving the retention rate by only five percentage points generates nearly $500,000 a year from additional tuition and fees.

It’s also because states are being pushed to increase the proportion of their populations with university degrees. In Tennessee, for example, only 32 percent of people aged 25 to 34 are college-educated, among the lowest levels in the nation. The state wants to increase that to 55 percent by 2025.

The Wallace State program is restricted to students in majors leading to jobs that are in particularly high demand in Alabama, including advanced manufacturing and nursing. The coaches are supplied by a private company called Inside Track, which subcontracts with several campuses to advise a total of 20,000 students nationwide from call centers in San Francisco, Nashville and Portland, Ore., by phoning, emailing, or texting them at least once every two weeks.

“They’ll talk to them about whether or not they’re adjusting well, if they have family support, how are their classes going, their commitment to graduating,” said Suzanne Harbin, Wallace State’s director of advancement. “Typically, if a student withdraws from school, it’s not because they’re struggling academically. It’s about all the other things that are affecting their ability to be successful.”

The idea proved to work even when a coach called and a student never answered, Harbin said.

“At the end of the semester, this student finally emailed the coach and said, ‘I know I didn’t pick up the call, but every time you called it reminded me I had to go and study,’” she said. “Sometimes it’s not only about the conversation they’re having. It’s that someone is paying attention to them.”

So good have been the results so far, said Harbin, that the college has hired two full-time on-campus coaches, too—one paid for by the local city council, and the other by a workforce development agency. The Tennessee program also relies on area businesses, not only for money to run it, but also to supply some of the volunteer mentors.

“We talk about how this is your workforce in five or 10 years. So you need to embrace these students,” DeAlejandro said.

But the number of students being coached remains small. And most of the rest are still left to figure things out for themselves.

“The thing about students is, they’re not going to tell you they’re lost. They’re embarrassed. They think they’re the only ones who don’t know,” said Wallace.

As for Hughes, she hopes to ultimately become a coach herself, and help other students get into, and finish, college.

“I’d love to know that I could do what Laura has done for me, and have that feeling of accomplishment,” she said.

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