Career Readiness
Higher Education
Student Support

Support your staff to support the student experience

As a student support professional in higher ed, you understand the ins and outs of a complicated, complex institutional system. But what about your students? The first-generation student forging a path no one in their family can help them with. Or the adult learner, returning to an educational environment they’re unfamiliar with. Even for traditional students or those earning advanced degrees, the college process can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Stepping outside your role and seeing the processes through the eyes of a student is an exercise that can help you provide even better student support.

In this chapter of our Back to School 2022 series, you will learn how silos between departments can put up barriers for students — and how removing those barriers can create a more student-centered support program. You’ll explore a roadmap for seeing where and how students are interacting with student support services — along with ways to help identify and correct any gaps in the system. You’ll understand how having your entire support team using the same methodology can provide a seamless experience for all students, regardless of who they speak with. And you’ll discover ways to connect the dots between academic student support tasks and career-related student outcomes, creating additional incentive for moving toward a student-centered program. Here are three tips for student support adjustments that can help all students succeed.

Tip 1: Set students up by breaking down institutional barriers

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.” Working separately, the admissions, advising, career counseling, student support and financial aid functions each fulfill the needs of university administration. But by working together — focused on what’s best for the student — these same departments can better serve students and excel as a cohesive student support team. So how do you break through the silo barrier to make teamwork work?

Start by putting yourself in the student’s shoes. Imagine you’re unsure about the process. Your problems and frustrations are mounting. Red flags appear, but no one’s paying attention. Imagine having to go to multiple offices, send multiple emails and make multiple phone calls — just to get the basic services and resources you need to succeed at your chosen school. Now imagine you’re that same student, but the student-facing teams at this university all work together. By removing the silos, everyone focuses on a singular goal: helping each student succeed — from initial inquiry through graduation day and beyond.

Mapping a course for success

Maps are a great way to navigate from Point A to Point B. And increasingly, colleges are using them to pinpoint where and when students are interacting with support services. Why the interest in the student journey map? Simple. If staff members don’t know who is responsible for any given task, students don’t know either. That causes frustration and confusion, which can lead to students (and their issues and concerns) falling through the cracks. It can also create unnecessary tasks for the student or duplicate efforts — both of which can drain department resources while creating a less-than-optimal experience for the student.

Institutions can address this ambiguity and create a safety net of interdepartmental connections by performing a communication audit to see every point of outreach across all student-facing departments. Are students getting letters or emails with the same information from multiple departments? Are they barely hearing from the school or are they being bombarded with communications? Are they receiving the specific information they need in a timely manner? How are students typically responding and what concerns crop up again and again?

Using the data collected, schools can map out the student’s journey from initial inquiry through enrollment, advising, financial aid offers, class scheduling and more. And the support doesn’t stop once classes start. Mapping the student journey can also help the student support team assess where there are gaps in service and whether any offerings or outreach need to be added, updated or restructured. Purposeful communication and collaboration among all student-facing teams can support the development of programs and services that enhance the lifelong success of every type of learner — from traditional and underrepresented to adult and online students.

Tip 2: Align staff training and objectives with student success

Working together for the common good of student support is an admirable goal. But what happens if everybody doesn’t get the memo? In order for the end result to be attainable, everyone needs to know what that end result is — as well as all the steps from beginning to end to get there. Providing sufficient professional development opportunities for key (or all) members of the student-facing support team is crucial. When staff members are disengaged, under-trained or not being fully used to their strengths, it shows — and students suffer. That’s why it’s so important to develop robust training and quality assurance plans.

A good starting point is to identify the skills and capabilities required to be a true asset to the student-facing support team. Once student-facing staff master the basics of support methodology, they can move toward more advanced qualifications or specialization in targeted areas through a clearly delineated professional development path. Those in leadership positions can provide frontline staff with the support they need, along with constructive, transparent feedback. By doing so, students will come to expect the same friendly, knowledgeable help, whether they’re dealing with financial aid, admissions or career support. And by working in harmony as a cohesive unit and focusing their efforts on the student, the support team will be on the same page — and successful — in doing their part to make a positive and lasting impact on enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

In our work with Illinois Central College, for example, InsideTrack trainers are working with staff members on a multi-year academic advising redesign to ensure sustainable change — transforming the community college’s approach to academic advising from transactional to transformational while increasing consistency and quality of service across all advisors. Initial results are very positive, with a 14.7% gain in greater student satisfaction with ICC advisors after the first year of the redesign.

Measure staff performance by student accomplishment

For staff members in student support, tracking performance metrics like number of phone calls logged or emails sent provides important information. But unless that information is directly tied to student outcomes, staff engagement is likely to lag. Student-facing teams need to understand how what they do has an impact — positive or negative — on the overall student experience. Yet often, frontline staff aren’t privy to program targets, such as enrollment or retention goals. Only when they fully understand their job expectations and the connection between their role and the institution’s mission will they realize how vital they are to creating a student-centric school.

Simply put, student support staff should be able to connect the dots between their job objectives — what they do every day — and student outcomes. When they can connect to the “why” of their roles, they can better serve their student population. As an example, term-to-term retention can be a staff performance objective that gives a better indicator of student success than a tally of phone calls and emails because it shows how successful student support is at getting students to advance. Working as a team to implement change, gain new skills and have the ability to perform expanded duties gives student support staff additional motivation to set students up to succeed.

Tip 3: Ensure academic goals align with student career goals

College has always been an opportunity for students to spread their wings and soak in knowledge. But at the end of the day (or more accurately, at the end of the final term), all that hard work boils down to one main goal: turning that degree into a successful career. According to a 2018 Strada-Gallup Educational Consumer Survey, 58 percent of higher ed students say that “getting a good job” is their primary motivation — more than double the next-closest response, which was “to learn more and gain knowledge.” With higher degree costs and rapidly evolving career pathways, today’s students are more focused on obtaining post-graduation work than ever before, wanting to make sure their college degree translates into a successful career — one that builds a better life for themselves and their families. That’s why it’s critical to incorporate career planning and support at every stage of the student journey — from the incoming freshman to the new graduate to someone looking to change or advance in an existing career. For some, a valuable career support topic may be exploring how an emerging job field is the perfect match for their interests. For others, learning new techniques for networking or building a portfolio could be the boost their career needs. Regardless of where they’re at in their educational journey, it’s clear that career is king.

Making career part of the coursework

Reaching that goal requires career support at every stage of the student journey — a journey that is no longer linear. Instead, it’s an ongoing cycle of school and work that extends from early adulthood to retirement. Throughout this journey, there are touchpoints where student support plays an important role.

  • Seeking educational opportunities to support career development
  • Juggling other commitments and education
  • Developing academic skills and mindset
  • Focusing on finding opportunities to apply new skills at work
  • Honing newly attained skills in the workforce
  • Mastering skills required for current work

This lifelong learner cycle goes from education to job and back again, many times during a person’s work life, with people changing jobs multiple times throughout their career. That’s why it’s crucial to be prepared to offer ongoing, on-point career support throughout the cycle of learning — starting during the enrollment process and continuing on through graduation day and beyond.

What does it look like when a student is set up for success at every stage of their higher ed journey? Meet recent graduate Christian Manty. From his first unsure steps at Old Dominion University through his bold strides on graduation day, Christian exemplifies the spirit behind the statistics. Follow along with his four-year journey and learn how evolving and continued support played a role in this young man’s success.

Coaching solutions proven to advance all learners

Whether you’re looking to help students persist through completion or to improve career outcomes for job seekers and employees, our holistic coaching solutions can help you achieve meaningful outcomes.