Getting to Graduation

Peter Korn
Portland Tribune

InsideTrack Coaches Make the Difference for College Students

The 360-degree view from the 16th floor of the Bank of America building is stunning.

The entire floor belongs to one company, InsideTrack, and to a visitor it seems as if InsideTrack’s busy employees can see endlessly in every direction — maybe even into the future.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Dan Adams and colleagues at Inside Track coach college students around the nation from their downtown Portland offices.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – Dan Adams and colleagues at InsideTrack coach college students around the nation from their downtown Portland offices.

Those aren’t corporate lawyers or investment bankers hooked up with headphones and multiple computer screens. They are college coaches, online and on the phone with students in schools ranging from Ivy League to tech colleges.

Last month, Atlantic Monthly featured a story that included in its headline the provocative question, “Is this a model for helping more Americans reach the middle class?” The story explained how Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chief executive officer, had decided he’d help his company’s 135,000 employees go to college so they could plan middle-class futures with wages above what baristas earn.

Schultz worked a deal with Arizona State University’s online school to provide the education, but with a twist. Aware that returning college students traditionally have high dropout rates, Starbucks insisted that ASU provide each of the Starbucks students with, among other things, a personal coach.

Those coaches work in that 16th-floor office in downtown Portland. InsideTrack, though founded in San Francisco, has based most of its 200 or so coaches here. San Francisco was too expensive, according to Dave Jarrat, InsideTrack’s vice president of marketing.

“We want really smart, empathetic do-gooders, and we find a lot of them here,” Jarrat says.

The ASU/Starbucks arrangement is InsideTrack’s largest, but the firm currently has contracts with 50 different schools. The company is branching out, consulting to universities that want to train their own coaches. At the heart of this booming business shines a glimmer of hope for Americans who haven’t followed the traditional high school-to-college track.

Increasingly, studies are showing that a college degree has become critical to moving people from low-wage jobs into work that can support a family. The manufacturing sector, which historically offered family-wage jobs for those with a high school diploma, has mostly disappeared. Additionally, college graduation rates for those who weren’t academic stars in high school remain low.

Enter a Stanford University study, which claims that student coaches can increase graduation rates 10 to 15 percent. To colleges desperate to maintain high retention rates, that’s money, which also translates into greater prestige and more student applications.

That’s where InsideTrack comes in. The company started in 2001 with contracts to deliver face-to-face coaching to students at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Later, online Devry University, based in Chicago, offered InsideTrack a contract to coach its students by phone.

InsideTrack coaches have access to their students’ academic records, so if Johnny flunks a math test on Tuesday he might get a “hang in there” call Tuesday night. When a college’s due date for financial aid applications is a few days off, all that college’s coached students might get an email reminder — a simple mass emailing. Coaches also frequently text their students.

In its 14 years of existence, InsideTrack has coached close to 1 million students, which means the company has built up a unique database. Coaches can mine this database to figure out what helps students stick with it and what pressure points are likely to discourage them to the point of giving up.

Disturbing Trends Lead to Solutions

A few years ago, InsideTrack coaches noticed a number of students with the same major at one West Coast university were dropping out of school prior to taking the same course. They called a few of the students and learned that the teacher was requiring them to buy books a week before financial aid checks for the semester arrived. The school was informed and changed its deadlines.

Some students, especially online students who have daytime jobs, need coaches to help them learn to manage their time. Traditional university students, according to Jarrat, tend to drop out of school because they don’t know how to establish connections to their school, or they don’t have a clear idea why they are in school and what they intend to get out of college.

These are all obstacles coaches can help students overcome, says Dan Adams, an InsideTrack coach. Adams, who lives in New Columbia in North Portland, fits Jarrat’s description of coach-as-do-gooder. He left a career as a teacher and educational consultant, intrigued by the idea of a job focused on helping students graduate.

Most InsideTrack coaches work with about 150 students at any one time. Adams is part of the ASU online team but spends about half his time analyzing the company’s data, trying to figure out the ideal number of weekly contacts between coach and student. Or which types of contacts work best, and when.

Six and a half years into his job at InsideTrack, Adams says he’s figured out what’s most overlooked by colleges.

“I believe (lack of) confidence is the big unmeasured obstacle to graduation,” he says. He recalls when he was a freshman at the University of Notre Dame. He came back to his dorm room excited because he’d scored 92 on his first quiz. He couldn’t wait to tell his roommate, who hemmed and hawed when Adams asked the roommate how he had done. When the roommate confessed he had scored 100 percent, Adams’ entire perspective shifted.

“My 92 felt like a failure from then on,” he says.

Adams is convinced that coaching, which costs universities between $300 and $500 per student if they contract with InsideTrack, represents a much smarter outlay than many of the expenditures colleges use to retain students. Without confidence, he says, students are too likely to give up. And coaching, in his experience, is the best way to bolster student confidence.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - InsideTrack Dan Adams chats with a fellow college coach.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – InsideTrack Dan Adams chats with a fellow college coach.

PCC finds its own path

The view from Pat Blumenthal’s office on Southeast 82nd Avenue is very different from the one at InsideTrack’s office. Blumenthal is in charge of Portland Community College’s student coaching program, called PCC Links.

One thing Adams and Blumenthal absolutely agree on is that student coaching keeps students in school, and that it is way more effective than giving students increased financial aid.

“Absolutely,” Blumenthal says. “Financial need is not the main barrier for students being successful in college. And that’s a revelation to a lot of people.”

There are obvious differences between the nationwide coaching provided by InsideTrack and the coaching at PCC. InsideTrack’s coaches maintain relationships via telephone. PCC’s students deal with their coaches face-to-face, sometimes twice a week or more.

That frequent face-to-face contact better helps PCC’s coaches figure out what’s really going on with students, according to Blumenthal. In fact, her coaches include case management in their job descriptions, often helping students connect with housing authorities when their living situations become tenuous, or finding paid internships for financially struggling students.

A second difference between the two models is that PCC coaches also are faculty members. In fact, students receiving coaching at PCC are required to take classes in subjects such as college survival skills and career development that often are taught by their coaches. Some students don’t like it, but Blumenthal says seeing students in class helps coaches gain insight they might not otherwise get.

InsideTrack coach Adams thinks he has an advantage in not seeing his ASU students in person. He says establishing intimacy and trust is critical if he is to find out what help a student truly needs, and that best happens long-distance.

“I think a coach loses nothing,” Adams say of the InsideTrack model. “I think there’s something really freeing about the anonymity of talking over the phone.” He uses as an analogy strangers sitting next to each other on an airplane who open up because they know they will never see each other again. “The anonymity allows for vulnerability, and vulnerability is absolutely key to helping a student grow,” he says.

All that face-to-face coaching time makes the PCC’s program expensive, about $2,500 per student for a three-term school year. And that means PCC, which depends on grants from the cities of Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro for most of its program funding, can’t afford to offer intensive coaching to the bulk of its 90,000 students.

The PCC Links program is limited to low-income, first-generation college students. Currently, about 600 PCC students are receiving Links coaching, which begins over the summer when coaches, knowing many of their students give up on school during the summer break, begin texting and Facebooking their charges.

PCC’s coaches have a caseload of about 125 students each. “It’s a ton of work,” Blumenthal says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - InsideTrack Operation Client Manager Emily Kyser talks with a college student from the companys downtown office.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – InsideTrack Operation Client Manager Emily Kyser talks with a college student from the company’s downtown office.

It’s also very specific work, according to Blumenthal. “We’re not doing therapy,” she says. “We’re very solution-focused and issue-focused.”

The results are startling. Last year, 82 percent of PCC students in the coaching program came back for another year of college. Before the coaching program started, Blumenthal estimates about 35 percent of PCC low-income students were retained year to year, which is close to the national average.

Blumenthal says many of her students — first in their families to attend college — have received the message directly and indirectly that they are not college material. Often their families need them to work more, or they have children to care for when they might be doing homework in the evening — all reasons to give up.

“As soon as you have a bump in the road, with that image of yourself, you feel like that must be right, I’m not college material. And everybody has a bump in the road,” Blumenthal says.

George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers and former chancellor of the Oregon University System, is convinced coaching eventually will be seen as most important for students from lower-income families. He cites a study out of the New York community college system showing low-income students who worked with coaches increased their graduation rate from 18 to 40 percent.

But community colleges don’t have the endowments of most four-year universities, or the public funding support. The future of the middle class just might depend on that changing, in Pernsteiner’s view.

“One of the real challenges we have,” he says, “ is now that we know these kinds of things work, how do we get the funding to provide them as a matter of course to all the students who need them?”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jamie Maggard, here inside the library at Portland State University, says her Portland Community College coach provided the emotional support that allowed her to graduate from Portland Community College.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – Jamie Maggard, here inside the library at Portland State University, says her Portland Community College coach provided the emotional support that allowed her to graduate from Portland Community College.

Coaches aim to build students’ confidence

Jamie Maggard is certain that without her coach she never would have earned her associate’s degree at Portland Community College.

Today, Maggard is continuing her education as a sociology major at Portland State University. Three more years and she expects to have a master’s degree in social work and begin working somewhere in the criminal justice system. Maybe, she says, she can become a detective.

Consider Maggard’s situation when she entered PCC

after graduating with good grades from Reynolds High School. Neither of her parents graduated high school. Her brother and sister did, but neither made it to college. She worked two part-time jobs — receptionist at a hair salon and manager of a pizza restaurant — to help support her family.

When Maggard took her placement exams at PCC she placed below college level in most subject areas. That meant she had to spend two terms at PCC learning material most college students already had in hand.

“It was almost like starting back over in high school,” she says.

Most of all, she says, it was discouraging, and stressful. She’d see her PCC coach, Josh Laurie, two or three times a week. Not infrequently, Maggard says, she’d enter his office in tears. Laurie would give her advice on dealing with the stress, to say nothing of helping her get the right calculator for math class and a tutor when it was clear she needed one. He also texted and emailed her regularly.

Laurie’s consistent message, according to Maggard, was aimed at maintaining her confidence. “I think my biggest fault was patience,” she says. “I felt very set back. I couldn’t place at college level. He was assuring me I was doing things right. He’s definitely been more than a coach to me. He’s been a mentor and helped with every problem I had.”


Article originally published in Portland Tribune, June 2015


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