Learn how grant funding helped colleges nationwide tap into specialized coaching to support students in need
Since Covid-19 first shut down college and university campuses in March of 2020, students have been struggling to gain their footing. From food, income and housing insecurity to feelings of isolation and anxiety, the pandemic has magnified many of the challenges a growing number of students were already facing. A report from InsideTrack’s Crisis Support Service team shows that students seeking support to meet basic needs have increased 203 percent since 2019. The number of students requesting assistance to navigate mental health crises has also more than doubled during that same period. A January 2021 article in Science News explores how the coronavirus pandemic — now in its second year — has caused the mental health of U.S. college students to plummet.
Schools would love to do more to help. But with already tight budgets stretched to the breaking point, finding additional funding during the pandemic is a major barrier. Overcoming that barrier is the idea behind InsideTrack’s On-Demand Coaching Network.
Ambitious initiative provides no-cost student support
The need was both great and immediate: students in crisis looking for help to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges so they could continue their education — challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
For some, this meant struggling with job loss, difficulty in finding childcare or dealing with family medical issues. For others, it was a feeling of being overwhelmed, not sure how to manage their existing commitments with the new responsibilities brought on by COVID-19.
As a way to assist students in need (and colleges with limited resources), ECMC Foundation and Strada Education Network provided $600,000 in grant funding to InsideTrack to create and implement the On-Demand Coaching Network — a way to help students facing challenging situations get the help they need so they can continue their higher ed journey. Working with grant partners like ECMC Foundation and Strada allowed us to greatly increase reach, which ultimately increased our positive impact on students.
“The pandemic has placed new levels of stress and strain on a generation of students who are already facing historical challenges related to college persistence, affordability and completion,” said Peter J. Taylor, president of ECMC Foundation. “This initiative will deliver urgently needed support to students and assist the institutions who serve them in building long-term crisis support capacity.”
The program will be active through the start of Fall 2021 and students at participating institutions receive one-on-one support from InsideTrack coaches — coaches specially trained to assess and support these students across a range of challenging situations.
When the program launched in the fall of 2020, it was called Emergency Coaching. But feedback from students and partner institutions led to a name change, as students weren’t sure their situations qualified as an “emergency” or warranted a service with that title. So On-Demand Coaching became the name, letting students know the service was available whenever and for whatever they needed.
Student Story: Making a real difference
At one network school, the emergency coach brought in our crisis support team to work with a student who was actively suicidal and living in his car. With a cold and snowy winter fast approaching, his living situation was rapidly becoming more urgent. After several meetings — advocating on the student’s behalf and working closely with the university — the team was able to get the student into a rented room. The university is also providing the student with a computer so he can continue with his courses.
Using coaching to overcome challenges
Coaching programs for students in college typically use the “reach out” method for contacting and connecting with students. While these programs do a great job of serving students, they are typically organized around the goals and timing of the institution. On-Demand Coaching, on the other hand, uses an opt-in method that asks students to reach-in when they need help. Since the student has to initiate contact, the program is more student-driven, coming alongside students when they most need help and are ready to engage with support.
Any students enrolled at participating colleges and universities are able to access on-demand coaching services through a centralized portal. Skilled coaches then work one-on-one with students via phone, text and email, using best practices developed over more than a decade by InsideTrack’s professional Crisis Support Services team.
Student Story: Connecting with resources
A student experienced some financial setbacks and lost all of her ID cards, including her permanent residency card. This meant that she could not be hired anywhere, yet she needed a job in order to cover living expenses. Replacing the residency card cost $540. Her on-demand coach was able to quickly escalate this. As a result, her college offered her emergency funds to replace the residency card. The grateful student had no idea the college could support her like this.
Building long-term capacity to help meet the evolving needs of today’s students
In addition to helping students navigate emergency situations, these short-duration coaching engagements also help them develop more general skills such as time-management and self-advocacy — the types of skills that are crucial to long-term student success.
In order to extend emergency coaching to as many students as possible, institutional capacity building and program evaluation are key components of this initiative. InsideTrack provides all participating colleges and universities with insights into the barriers their students are facing. In addition, several schools also received dedicated staff development and training to enhance their ability to assess students’ acute needs, de-escalate potential crisis situations, and manage feelings of compassion fatigue among frontline members of the student services team.
Student Story: Against all odds
In January, a student with a young daughter reached out for help. She was in the process of moving to a less expensive apartment to save money. She was two months behind on utility bills, her daughter had outgrown her boots and warm coat, and she needed to find childcare so she could work. On top of that, her laptop didn’t support the browser specifications required for her coursework. She also shared that she was only eating one meal a day as a way to make sure her daughter had enough to eat. Her coach was able to connect her to multiple resources — both on and off campus — to help fill in the gaps. While not all of her needs have been met, the student shared that just having someone in her corner has raised her spirits and made it easier for her to stay strong through these challenges.
A rewarding experience
So what’s it like to be a coach on the On-Demand team? “I’ve had the pleasure of working with students on this initiative since it began,” says Arwen Foster, InsideTrack On-Demand Coach. “During that time, I’ve spoken to students of all ages and stages of life — from traditional-age freshmen struggling with being on their own for the first time (and doing so in the middle of a pandemic), to working parents, to a grandmother who completed her associate of nursing degree while we were working together. I have worked with students at 14 different schools from coast to coast as well as Hawaii.”
And while she shared that every student story is unique and their reasons for reaching out for support vary widely, they all share two traits. “First,” she notes, “their education is extremely important to them. They wouldn’t have made it this far into the pandemic without a profound desire to finish their degree. Second, they were brave enough to reach out for support when things got tough. I frequently hear from students how hard it was for them to reach out, but how thankful they were that they took the risk.”
Student Story: The power of perseverance
Due to factors beyond his control, a law student found himself needing safe housing and food for his young daughter and himself. His coach suggested that he reach out to a local organization that provides short-term funding to students with emergency situations at home. His coach also helped him identify several food pantry locations, including one on campus. Since then, the student has met with his coach weekly, providing updates on his search to stabilize his living situation and using his coach as an accountability partner to keep him moving forward with his school work. He also applied for and received support that gave his daughter and him greater stability. With finals over, the student plans to continue to meet with his coach as he navigates the complex logistics of being a single parent and student.
Support during difficult times
When students make the decision to access On-Demand Coaching, they’re looking for someone to listen to their story and help guide them through barriers that currently seem insurmountable. The pandemic has placed new levels of stress and strain on a generation of students who were already facing historic challenges related to college persistence, affordability and completion — particularly among historically underrepresented student populations. On-Demand Coaching plays a crucial role in helping these students stay in school and continue on toward graduation — knowing that doing so will help them achieve greater financial stability and the benefits that come from that.
By the time the grant-funded On-Demand Coaching program comes to a close at the end of this year, more than 900 students at 20 participating institutions will have reached-in for help. Working with organizations like ECMC Foundation and Strada Education Network allows us to further our mission by empowering and advancing all learners. In this case, that meant providing students with the immediate coaching support they needed. Whether it was food and housing support, locating campus resources, help with academic challenges or just being heard, the goal was always the same: helping these students remain in school and continue working toward their educational goals. That’s the power of partnership.