College kids get coached up
By Mary Beth Marklein
Kim Wilson calls herself a self-starter. But she can still use a little help now and then, especially when it comes to the sometimes daunting challenge of being a college student. So she considers herself lucky to have been part of a pilot project at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., last year in which she and other randomly selected freshmen worked with executive-style coaches, who helped them set goals, plan their time and otherwise manage school affairs. In college, "you kind of have to figure out a lot of things yourself," says Wilson, 18, a sophomore at Chapman. The weekly half-hour coaching sessions, she says, "helped me ease into the college experience and get comfortable very quickly."
And what works for the student appears to work for the college. Chapman officials recently boasted to trustees of higher retention rates and grade point averages for students who worked with coaches, compared with those in a control group who didn't. Chapman is one of a handful of colleges working with InsideTrack, a California-based company that provides coaching services to college freshmen as a way to encourage them to stick around long enough to graduate.
Not exactly tutoring A relatively young phenomenon with roots in the corporate world, coaching is not to be confused with academic or psychological services such as tutoring or counseling. Instead, coaches help their clients figure out what they want to do and how to reach the goal. Using worksheets, goal-setting exercises and simply by asking questions, InsideTrack-trained coaches help students manage everything from academics to health to money and activities such as jobs or athletics.
"Most colleges expect students to be very intrinsically motivated," says InsideTrack founder Alan Tripp, who hatched the idea in 1999 while teaching at Stanford's business school. "The expectation is that students will do all the work on their own with very limited feedback and structure." Now, after conducting pilots with more than 14,000 students, the company plans to roll out its services nationwide. Among those on board: Marymount College in Palos Verdes, Calif., and two for-profit institutions. It might be an idea whose time has come, says Pamela Richarde of Placentia, Calif., president-elect of the International Coach Federation, a membership and credentialing group: "I'm very excited it's happening."
Coaching college students is not unheard of. Richarde coached students at a community college for several years. At the University of California-Berkeley, the SAGE Scholars program, for low-income students who maintain a B average, turned to volunteer coaches when it lost funding. And students who have attention-deficit disorder and related problems are increasingly using coaches, says Pam Milazzo of Westfield, N.J., who set up such a practice three years ago.
What sets InsideTrack apart is that colleges — not students — buy the service. The cost is about $100 a month a student for 10 months, Tripp says. And in many cases, the students, aside from being freshmen, don't have special needs or circumstances. "We all know freshman year is a challenge" says Saskia Knight, Chapman's dean of enrollment management. "Even the best-prepared kids might not make that transition well."
Wilson, who plans to continue going to a coach this year at her own expense, credits sessions last year with Isidro Guerra for helping her figure out a major (legal studies with a minor in environmental science) and discover extracurricular opportunities. "I'm a commuter student, and one of my goals was to get more involved in campus," she says. With gentle prodding from Guerra, she attended a campus activities fair and checked into the sorority scene. She ended up joining Chapman's peer conduct board, helping resolve cases when students violate campus policies.
Worthwhile payoff This year, Chapman is expanding the program to include half the entering class, or about 430 students. Knight acknowledges that buying the service was "a sensitive topic" on campus. With budgets tight, "everybody has their wish list, and everybody doesn't get funded," she says. But InsideTrack stresses a longer-term payoff. A case study on its website says Chapman is "on track to generate approximately $1.1 million in increased tuition revenue," a calculation based on the number of students in the pilot years who otherwise might have dropped out or transferred. Money aside, higher retention rates matter to policymakers, too, including federal and state legislators, who have expressed concerns about low college graduation rates.
Retention is "a relatively easy way to measure a proxy for quality," says John Gardner of the Policy Center on the First Year of College at North Carolina's Brevard College. He cites numerous reasons some students leave college — including money. But he says InsideTrack appears to fill a gap. "It's a great example of where some entrepreneurs have looked at a potential market and said, 'Is the educational system adequately serving students?' And the answer is no," he says. "I think it's very smart, and I don't question at all why they're doing it."
Eased into the experience: Kim Wilson, left, meets with her new coach, Emily Holzer, at Chapman University at Orange, Calif.