Kenji Thrash worked her way through Northeastern University, taking as many as five classes in the evening after long days working at an office. Juggling work and classes left little time for a social life, and Thrash often felt stressed and overextended. She graduated last summer, nine years after she began. When the 29-year-old returned to Northeastern in September to begin a master’s degree program in international politics, she assumed she would continue walking the tightrope between work and college.
Instead, she was thrown a lifeline: a free personal coach to help her handle a hectic schedule and stay motivated when things seem overwhelming, a benefit offered to hundreds of students taking classes evenings and weekends. Thrash has a standing weekly phone appointment with her coach, a kind of guardian angel on speed dial. During their half-hour conversation, her coach helps her carve out time for assignments, practice upcoming oral presentations, and plan big projects. She doles out advice and encouragement, and lends a sympathetic ear to Thrash’s troubles. “I always felt that you were just considered a number when you’re in school, that you’re only known by your student ID,” said Thrash, who renews financial contracts for a Boston software firm. “But this is so personalized, you feel like someone really cares. It’s like the first new friend you make at college.”
This fall, Northeastern began providing the coaches to students in its School of Professional and Continuing Studies, which offers a range of undergraduate and graduate degree programs to adult students. The university is one of 13 schools nationwide that has hired the San Francisco company InsideTrack, the nation’s only private company that provides coaching through colleges and universities. Northeastern is the only New England university to provide coaches, and 800 of 3,000 eligible students are using the service.
Interested students are assigned a personal coach. After an introductory phone call in which students detail their background and educational goals, coaches and students develop a plan of attack for the semester with an eye on efficient time management.
Northeastern and InsideTrack officials say adult students, who usually take classes while working full time and raising children, are prone to time and financial constraints that may derail their academic efforts. Just half of Northeastern’s continuing students eventually graduate, a trend throughout higher education. “The first thing that goes is school,” said Christopher Hopey, dean of Northeastern’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies. “There are a thousand things that get in the way.”
Hopey said he had been intrigued by the idea of personal coaching, but wanted to see if it was worth the approximately $500,000 yearly investment. In a pilot program launched during the last academic year, the school tracked the performance of 200 students with coaches and 200 without. They found that students with coaches were 15 percent more likely to return for their second year. “That’s a remarkable increase,” Hopey said. “Much higher retention, more courses taken, and higher satisfaction with the experience.”
Northeastern officials say they are pleased with the coaching program but have no plans to extend the service to traditional students. Yet low graduation rates are a persistent problem throughout higher education, with just 52 percent of students at four-year colleges graduating from that institution within five years, according to the latest national surveys.
Modeled after corporate and executive coaches, college mentors seek to give students structure and a sense of direction and accountability.”When you give students guidance, structure, and feedback, they are much more likely to get much more out of the experience,” said Alan Tripp, who cofounded the college coaching firm seven years ago. “When they have a clear vision why they’re doing what they’re doing, that makes all the difference.”
Meaghan Joyce, an InsideTrack director who oversees eight coaches at Northeastern, said they do their best to keep students focused on long-term goals, so they can push through difficult stretches. “At some point the novelty [of college] wears off, and it gets challenging,” Joyce said. “Having that clear vision of why you’re doing this and what you want to get out of it makes it that much easier to push through.”
David Hupperich, a coach who works with 100 students, recalled a student who cut back her work hours to attend school, but then struggled to pay her bills and keep up with daily affairs. “She sounded overwhelmed,” he said. Together, the two worked out a Web-based scheduling program to organize her time. “Having a lifeline, someone to bounce ideas off, that really helps,” Hupperich said.
Northeastern University offers coaching for adult students
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