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.
About the Author: Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher has expertise in higher education quality assurance, educator preparation, and competency-based education. A former public school teacher and college administrator, Roberta is now an educational consultant specializing in the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP).