by Michelle J. Nealy
Feb 15, 2008, 22:24

For years, Northeastern University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies was losing its students at a disturbing rate. Seeking a new approach to an old problem, the university partnered with a firm that provides students with personal coaches who advise them on everything from academic progress to finances and health.

The Boston school was delighted by the results from hiring InsideTrack, a private, California-based coaching firm. In a pilot program launched during the spring of 2007, the school began providing 200 students with personal coaches to keep them motivated, focused and organized. They tracked the performance of the 200 students with coaches and 200 without. University officials found that students with coaches were 15 percent more likely to return for their second year.

“When students get the encouragement and guidance that most people need to thrive, they are much more likely to persist. InsideTrack believes that student success depends on the presence of multiple motivational factors, including caring, proactive management, frequent feedback, a sense of purpose, mentoring and recognition,” said Alan Tripp, founder and CEO of InsideTrack, during a recent presentation at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting.

Last year, Arizona State University and Lynn University, a small liberal arts college in Florida, signed contracts with InsideTrack to implement success coaching for first-year students.

Staying organized and on task was a challenge for Bradford Dworak, a freshman communications major at Arizona State University. Having the additional layer of support from his coach was helpful, Dworak says.

“College is a huge transition. It is nice to have someone there not just to help you with your math homework but with life. It is nice to have someone following you, keeping track of your progress and guiding you along your freshman year.”

Students and InsideTrack coaches meet weekly, either in person, by phone or via the Web, to set goals, develop study skills and discuss the students’ finances, health and overall progress. Coaches help students prepare for meetings with professors, advisors and other university staff.

“Lately, my coach has been sending me information on summer internships and career fairs,” Dworak says.  

InsideTrack and its executive-style training, modeled after corporate coaching, is not intended to replace the services that exist for student development. The program is geared to provide an additional service to students to ensure their success.

Coaches undergo a rigorous training and certification process. In order to advance, coaches submit a portfolio that shows evidence of their coaching skills and professional development, and take an exam of written, oral and coaching-evaluation components.

“We provide much more proactive guidance than school counselors and academic advisors. We treat students like people working inside a well-run organization, by helping students understand where they want to go and assisting them in getting there,” says Tripp.

InsideTrack officials say the results of personalized coaching speak for themselves. Northeastern is one of the 13 schools that have been able to reduce first time attrition by more than 10 percent using InsideTrack.

“Coaching is about understanding where a student wants to go and creating an action plan and accountability to get them there. From the very start, we begin assessing skills, highlighting strengths and uncovering potential weakness, unlike school counselors that are sought out after problems arise,” says Bobby Hernández, a former InsideTrack coach.

Tripp noted during his presentation that while high-risk students — those from low-income backgrounds, students with less academic preparation and first-generation college students — disproportionately benefit from personalized coaching, the program is designed to assist high-performing students as well.

Low retention can impact an institution’s competitive position, its reputation and sometimes its bottom line.

“It is cheaper to retain students than to lose them, because you have to replace the ones you lost. That’s a no brainer,” said Dr. William Greer, president of Virginia Wesleyan College, noting that he was satisfied with the retention rates of nontraditional students but signed on with InsideTrack for a more aggressive strategy to retain students ages 18 to 21.

Northeastern paid $500,000 for its program. Forty percent of the students who receive coaching during their first year for free have the option of maintaining their coaching relationship the following year for a cost of $125 a month.

Michelle J. Nealy