Comprehensive Student Mentoring

mentoring

Because of COVID, higher education institutions are facing huge financial challenges. Many students have cut way back on the number of credit hours that they’ve taken in the past, while many more have decided to put college on hold for now. There are very few college and university presidents who haven’t lost more than a few nights’ sleep over how they’re going to continue to pay for faculty, staff, and programs when Full Time Enrollment (FTE) numbers have dropped significantly. 

 

Open Door Policy Can Lead to a Revolving Door Student Body

In order to keep the doors open, some institutions have tried creative ways to boost enrollment. One common way is to move to an open-enrollment model. Essentially, institutions are laying aside many of their traditional admission requirements in order to make it easier for new students to gain entry. Examples include passing entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT as well as high school GPA of at least 2.0. 

This decision can be effective from a recruitment and enrollment perspective because it can give enrollment a “shot in the arm” when an institution needs it most. The upside is that employee furloughs or layoffs are reduced and in some cases even eliminated, and programs don’t have to be cut. However, the consequence is that those institutions admitted a sizable number of students who were not equipped for success. 

Anecdotally, professors report decreased student participation–particularly in their online courses. In addition, the quality of work being submitted is noticeably lower than in previous semesters. When students aren’t actively engaging in their classes or perhaps not even logging in for days or weeks at a time, they likely aren’t going to be successful at the end of the semester. Subsequently, students who fail courses don’t continue to receive federal financial aid for very long. That means they aren’t able to pay for college and thus drop out, likely never to return. 

 

Struggling Students Also Cause Institutional Challenges

Not only does this have a devastating impact on those students’ lives, but it also has long term effects on those colleges and universities that enrolled them. In order to maintain their accreditation and thus be able to receive federal financial aid, colleges and universities must collect data on metrics such as satisfactory academic progress, retention, persistence to graduation, and student satisfaction.

When institutions adopt an “open enrollment” policy that lasts more than a semester or two, it can have a lasting impact on those metrics. Consequently, when it comes time for an institution’s annual reports or next accreditation site visit, the damage caused by temporary stop-gap policies can potentially be devastating. 

 

One Solution: Comprehensive Mentoring

I recently recommended to one university that they should consider adopting a comprehensive mentoring program to support students who aren’t able to demonstrate a propensity for success upon admission. 

When they hear the term mentoring many people think it’s the same as academic advising. That’s simply not the case. I look at a comprehensive mentoring program to be academic advising on steroids: It must contain that important traditional academic advising piece, but it adds an important layer of support that helps students in a variety of other ways. For example, trained mentors can help students: 

  • Stay on pace and complete their coursework on time
  • Navigate through the institution’s various departments or bureaucracy
  • Locate social, economic, or emotional support resources
  • Achieve their academic goals and attain success

Just having a strong mentoring program in place doesn’t mean all students will succeed in school. But it’s important for institutions to be able to quickly identify at-risk students and provide them with the kind of support they need. These safety nets can come in many forms, including remediation and intervention. To the greatest extent possible though, I believe a proactive support model is far better than waiting until a student is struggling to reach out to them. 

 

Four Essential Mentoring Components

I just finished reading Dr. Jill Biden’s doctoral dissertation on Student Retention. Those who really know me should not be surprised to read that this brings me joy and I considered it “pleasure” reading! While it’s a bit light on statistical methodology and there are a few APA errors (my eyes always seem to land on them), the dissertation is very well written. The biggest takeaway is that relative to her conclusions, SHE IS RIGHT. While Bidens’ research focuses on the community college level, her recommendations are equally appropriate for four-year institutions. A recent article the Chronicle for Higher Education encapsulated Biden’s findings into four major categories: 

  • Deep Advising Relationships: The old saying is true – people remember how you make them feel. It takes both time and effort to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, but this is a crucial aspect of an effective mentoring program. 
  • Faculty Mentoring Programs: As I previously stated, a comprehensive mentoring program involves a whole lot more than just traditional academic advising with a staff member. There’s an important role that faculty can and should play. It’s also important to remember that all mentors need their own training and support in order to help students attain success. 
  • Mental Health Services: Even under the best of circumstances, many college students struggle adjusting to a new environment, developing into adulthood, and making good personal choices. However, starting college during a pandemic amplifies student stress exponentially. Having the support of caring, competent mentors can help. 
  • More Deliberate Thought to Student Pathways: At the P-12 level, teachers devote considerable attention to setting students up for success through appropriate curriculum, instructional methods, and assessments. Higher education is still in its infancy with regard to designing programs that are relevant, meaningful, and appropriate for student success. Historically, the approach has been to demand that students conform to an existing program model. As a result, we see high numbers of students who struggle and often drop out. We as an educational community need to greatly advance our thinking in this area. 

 

Tracking Student Success is Essential to Effective Mentoring

Once an institution admits a student, it then takes on the responsibility for that student’s academic success. As I have tried to emphasize above, a comprehensive mentoring program can provide the kind of support at-risk students need to help them experience success and achieve their goals. However, just putting those four major components that Biden recommends in place doesn’t guarantee that students will be successful. In order to know for sure, we must have a way to track their success. That requires quality data. 

In his commentary about using data to support student success in a competency-based education (CBE) model, Kurt Gunnell detailed his institution’s data-driven approach to carefully tracking student success. Western Governors University is not only a CBE institution; it’s also completely online. It’s one of the nation’s largest universities with more than 120,000 students, many of whom are first-generation college students or come from under-represented populations. While recruitment and enrollment aren’t challenges for WGU, faculty and staff work very hard to retain those students and support them from the point of admission to graduation. WGU can tout a first to second year retention rate of 86% for first-time, full-time students. That’s impressive, and it’s due in no small part to the institution’s mentoring program. But a successful mentoring program doesn’t just happen organically. It depends on an effective way to identify at-risk students, track their progress, and measure the impact of various types of support. Gunnell’s commentary details his institution’s new data tracking model. 

 

The Time is Right to Consider Mentoring

As higher education professionals, we know that some students will always struggle more than others. Adopting a “sink or swim” policy has never been a good idea, but until recently many have given little thought to metrics such as student retention and persistence to graduation. Perhaps in this Age of COVID, at a time when colleges and universities are being forced to reexamine what they can do to adapt and survive, it would be a good idea to give serious consideration to a comprehensive mentoring program. 

 

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About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in educator preparation, accreditation, online teaching & learning, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an adjunct professor, and educational consultant. She specializes in CAEP accreditation. 

Email her directly at: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com

 

Top Graphic Credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash

 

Practical Ways to Meet the Needs of Adult Learners

A huge chunk of college enrollments today is made up of adult learners—sometimes referred to as non-traditional students. Just as it’s not appropriate to teach all P-12 students in exactly the same way we must be careful to consider and address the unique needs of adult learners in our colleges and universities. In her article entitled, “4 Ways Universities Can Better Engage with Nontraditional Students,” Meghan Bogardus Cortez shares some tips for higher education programs, each of which can impact student enrollment, retention, graduation, and satisfaction rates. I’d like to add my own tips here:

Make what they are learning meaningful and relevant. Help adult learners to see connections between theory and practice. Show them why it’s important to be able to solve algebraic equations, or why they should know what the War of 1812 was all about. Try to tie it in to how key concepts and skills can be applied their current and future career goals.

Be respectful of them as adults. Non-traditional learners have very different needs than those 18-22-year-olds; treat them accordingly. Listen to them. Take them seriously. And don’t talk down to them.

Acknowledge that they are juggling a lot to go to school. Most adult students work at least one full-time job. They have a spouse and are raising multiple children. Perhaps they’re taking care of aging or infirm parents. Acknowledging that you know “sometimes life gets in the way” is not offering an excuse for them to fail but it’s important they know that you understand that sometimes other priorities must take precedence over their academic studies, and that’s OK.

Help them to set their own reasonable goals and support their efforts in attaining them. It doesn’t do any good to create a schedule for an adult learner or tell them how much they should read or complete in a week’s time—those decisions should be made by them, with some guidance from you. Help them avoid frustration and disappointment by steering them away from committing to too much at once. For example, most learners who are working full-time and trying to raise three kids while going through a divorce should probably not try to complete 18 credits in a semester or think they can read seven chapters and write a 15-page paper over a weekend. In some instances that kind of workload can be maintained for a while but eventually the stress builds up. It’s much better to take it a little slower and succeed than to let a student try to get through a program in record time and then fail.

Help them to see light at the end of the tunnel. Adult learners need an end game—they need to be able to know that their efforts will pay off for them when they are finished—and they need to know that this day will come sooner rather than later.

A dose of compassion and empathy works wonders: Sometimes you are the only positive, affirming, supportive person they will talk to in a give day or even a given week. Be a sounding board when things go wrong, and a cheerleader when things go right. You’re not their therapist nor their friend, per se, and yet so much of effective mentoring requires a dose of both.

These are all things that faculty members can do to help adult learners stay enrolled, graduate, and achieve their goals. Some students, particularly those who struggle or may be identified as “at-risk” could benefit from additional support through a mentoring model, which can be tailored depending on the structure of each college and university.

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education, P-12 schools, and non-profit agencies in areas such as competency-based education, new program design, gap analysis, quality assurance, leadership, outcomes-based assessment, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She also writes about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations through her blog site (www.robertarossfisher.com). 

Meeting the Needs of Learners in Today’s Universities

In a recent piece entitled Survey: American Confidence in Higher Ed is Waning, it appears that only about 25% of the sample thinks the current higher education system is fine the way it is, and among millennials, that number drops to 13%. First of all, why do 75% believe the system is NOT meeting their needs? And of the millennial group, why do they feel even more strongly about the current system? In other words, what do today’s learners need that our colleges and universities are not providing?

We need to take a deep dive into this survey data in order to learn more about exactly what questions were asked, and what the demographics of respondents were. For example, are we reading the results of a representative sample, or were most respondents within a particular age group? Were the questions focused on seeking a first college degree, or did they include advanced studies? That sort of thing…However, just speaking in general terms, I’d say we need to focus on two things:

First, we need to revisit the relevance of curriculum found in today’s college degree programs. Are they workforce-driven? Will what students are learning really help them develop better job skills? I see very little true collaboration between higher education institutions and specific industries; this is essential for modernizing the curriculum and ensuring that what graduates will know and be able to do upon graduation will prepare them to be workforce-ready.

Second, we need to provide more structured support for those who need it throughout their programs, from matriculation to graduation. Mentoring models work wonders–This is particularly true for first-generation college students but really can benefit all learners. The key is to have a formal mechanism in place for continually monitoring and evaluating the progress of each learner, and to provide a safety net for them all along the way. Regular phone calls, emails, academic outreach, and the like can work wonders to help learners stay focused, achieve manageable goals, and attain success.

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She can be reached at: globaleducationalconsulting@gmail.com

Transition Points & Gateways: Stop Gaps Universities Should Consider

Each higher education institution’s program of study, regardless of major, contains specific phases of progression that each student must successfully complete before being allowed to graduate. In other words, there is a planned, purposeful order to completing a program or earning a college degree—an individual does not just apply for admission and have complete autonomy over the courses taken, the sequence of coursework, when/where/if practica or internships are completed, and so on. The institution makes those decisions after carefully designing each given program of study. They decide things such as:

  • Admission and enrollment criteria
  • General education requirements
  • # of semester hours required for graduation
  • Minimum GPA required to pass each course
  • Clinical experiences, internships, practica
  • Exit examinations required for graduation (or state licensure, depending on the program)

Transition points are sometimes referred to as “gateways”—they are specific points at which a student passes from one stage in his or her program to the next. As long as a student meets the stated expectations, the journey continues and he or she moves ahead toward graduation. If the student fails to meet one or more expectations in a given stage, the institution implements a plan for remediation, additional support, or in some case, counseling out of the program.

I have created a Transition Points framework that may be useful to some educator preparation programs. Of course, Transition Points must be tailored to fit each unique program but could include gateways such as:

  • Transition Point I: Applicant to Pre-Candidate Status 
    • Admission to the program
  • Transition Point II: Pre-Candidate to Candidate Status
    • Completion of Block #1 Coursework & Preparation for Formative Field Experiences
  • Transition Point III: Candidate to Pre-Graduate Status
    • Completion of Block #2 Coursework & Formative Field Experiences 
  • Transition Point IV: Pre-Graduate to Graduate Status
    • Completion of Block #3 Coursework & Culminating Clinical Experiences
  • Transition Point V: Graduate to Program Completer Status
    • Pass Required Licensure/Certification Examination(s)

Do you see the progression? When detailed out, a complete Transitions Points or Gateway table should paint a portrait of a student’s journey from matriculation to program completion; the sequence should represent a logical flow with at least some detail relative to minimum expectations.

I hope this has been helpful to you. Need more ideas? Want to collaborate on a project? Feel free to reach out to me.

–rrf

 

Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in educator preparation, accreditation, online learning, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter, writer, and educator, she currently supports higher education and P-12 schools in areas such as competency-based education, teacher preparation, distance learning, and accreditation through her company, Global Educational Consulting, LLC. She can be reached at: www.robertarossfisher.com.