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The Higher Ed Student Coaching Journey

Find out how student success coaching went mainstream  — and evolved from there

In 2013, Stanford researchers Dr. Rachel Baker and Dr. Eric Bettinger published a landmark study evaluating the effectiveness of coaching as a student success intervention. The randomized controlled trials showed significant increases in student persistence and graduation of coached students, and the report itself is still considered to be the gold standard in the field of higher education — and the Department of Education’s citation of choice on increasing completion rates. Reinforcing the value of coaching, the report also popularized its use as a way to improve student outcomes and engagement.

Learn more about how this significant study paved the way for coaching to come into its own and, thanks to continual advancements in pedagogy and technology, become more effective with every year.

Meet author and educator Rachel Baker, PhD

Now an Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the UC Irvine’s School of Education, Dr. Rachel Baker was working at Stanford when she co-authored “The Effects of Student Coaching: An Evaluation of a Randomized Experiment in Student Advising” — the study that gave coaching its street cred in 2011. But Dr. Baker’s interest in helping students persist and succeed in college began years earlier, in Boston, where she worked with high school students and tracked their progression into and through college. “I was working very closely with students who were faced with really different administrative structures and levels of support. And I had a bunch of students who I'd worked with in high school – high-achieving students who’d done really well in high school and then got to college and couldn’t find the kinds of support they needed to succeed. They just couldn't figure out how to navigate the schools.” Thinking about these lost-in-the-system students motivated Dr. Baker to get involved in higher education research focusing on persistence. And the study which made her a household name in higher ed was one of the first she’d worked on that focused on the effects of individualized student coaching.

The study that made all the difference

Trying to figure out the effects of a particular program, intervention or type of education on student success and persistence is both difficult and complicated, since higher-ed students are exposed to so many different programs, instructors, and influences on their individual campuses. And it’s very expensive to execute randomized controlled trials. So how exactly did this study come about?

InsideTrack provided Drs. Baker and Bettinger access to their collection of randomized controlled trials, each of which had excellent data demonstrating the effects of individualized student coaching. The researchers jumped at the opportunity. “We can all think of reasons why one-on-one proactive coaching should work for students, but until we do these very clean and very carefully designed experiments where we randomly assign students to have a particular treatment or not, we can't say for certain that there is an effect,” Dr. Baker explained.

“So what was exciting about this project was that we had the data. We had the ability to rigorously study a randomly assigned treatment and be able to say, for certain, that we think that this particular treatment has this effect.”

Given several years to choose from, the researchers picked the 2003-2004 cohort, which gave them a longer trajectory to look at student retention, and the 2007-2008 cohort, which was closer to the start date of their study. Due to the extensive nature of the trials, the study offered data on an impressive 13,000 students selected through lotteries on 17 different campuses. These students had been randomly assigned to either have an InsideTrack coach or not. And, as meticulously verified by Baker and Bettinger, the control group (no coaches) and the treatment group (with coaches) were very similar in all the ways that could be measured, such as age, gender, GPA and prior academic achievement. All in all, the conditions were ideal to examine the difference student coaching could make.

The proof is in the persistence

The study set out to examine the effects of coaching on persistence, both when students had active access to a coach and afterward, to see if coaches had prompted changes that lasted beyond the coaching. So the researchers looked at the treatment students compared to control students at four different intervals of time: at six months, 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months after the start of coaching.

Without looking at the control means, the differences didn’t seem big: after 6 months, nearly 58% of the control students were still enrolled; the treatment students were 4% or 5% higher than that. But according to Dr. Baker, “That’s actually a pretty big increase — something like 9%. And that percentage point increase is pretty consistent over time, at 12 months, 18 months.”"But after 24 months, while about 26% of the control students have persisted, we're closer to 30% for the treatment group. And that's a really big, meaningful increase, something on the magnitude of a 13% increase.” It’s especially impressive given the number of non-traditional students in the study, many enrolled in online programs where persistence is typically low.

“So we're seeing that the InsideTrack coaching really had a meaningful effect on students who are very at risk of not finishing,”

Just how solid is the study? What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), on behalf of the Department of Education, thoroughly vets academic studies that have attracted attention or are rigorously done, and then either gives or doesn’t give them the equivalent of a stamp of approval. Simply put, a WWC-approved study can be believed at face value. Rachel and Eric’s study wasn’t just approved but is still cited as the standard of research excellence by the Department of Education.

How the study changed the game

For the first 10 years that InsideTrack was offering student success coaching, the biggest hurdle was getting people to understand what that term even meant. “We were having to educate the administrators we were talking to about what coaching was and how it could help their students,” explains Dave Jarrat, Senior Vice President of Strategic Engagement and Growth at InsideTrack. “There were a few institutions that had started to experiment with kind of proactive advising in various forms, but really this idea of holistic, executive-style coaching for students wasn't mainstream. So it was very much an uphill battle just to educate people on why this process might be beneficial.” In 2011, things got a lot easier. “As soon as the initial release of this report came out, the shift was almost immediate. Coaching became this better-understood process that institutions were actively coming to us to learn about.”

The evolution of coaching

Though the study that put coaching on the map remains unchanged, the coaching process has changed considerably over the past several years. At the time of the study, InsideTrack coaching was largely phone and email-based. Mobile apps and text messaging were still a ways off, and most people didn't have a smartphone. Coaches had to reach out to students cold, introduce themselves, and endeavor to explain the why, when and how of coaching in that initial phone meeting. Awkward! Students today enjoy a rich and relaxed on-boarding process where they are able to watch videos about coaching, see testimonials and hop on the website before they ever interact one-on-one with a coach.

And because the coaching model at the time of the study was based so heavily on weekly phone meetings, the rosters were relatively small and decidedly finite. That too has evolved. Not every student needs to be in synchronous communication with their coach all of the time. Supported by the latest technology, analytics, and pedagogy, one InsideTrack coach can now manage a thousand students, through automated nudges at critical times, text messaging, and in-depth interactions only as needed —over email, texting, video chatting or phone. So the ability to scale up to provide tailored support to large numbers of students has increased dramatically.

And because of advances in technology and analytics, coaching has become extremely tailored. While InsideTrack coaching does cover certain focus areas — including financial literacy, academics, health and wellness, career readiness, and commitment to graduation — what is discussed with a particular student at any given point in time depends on the student: on where they are and what they need. This includes the modality and frequency of communication, which may change as the student’s needs or circumstances change. So coaching today, much more so than at the time of the study, is a very personal and personalized process.

Through twenty years of coaching, training, and consulting and from millions of student and coach interactions, InsideTrack has gathered a tremendous amount of data and insights related to student success. While our findings continue to match or even exceed the findings of the Baker and Bettinger study, we remain thankful for that groundbreaking report that enabled individualized student coaching to improve outcomes for countless students.

Want to hear more from Dr. Baker and about the landmark study?

This session with Dr. Baker was previously recorded.

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