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.
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.
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.