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Student Support at Old Dominion University:
Turning college into a catalyst for social mobility

The impact of social mobility can’t be fully measured in a single lifetime.

While it may start with one individual, it sets into motion a series of effects that ripple out through entire families and communities for generations. Increasingly, the ongoing cycle of advancement and opportunity associated with the “American Dream” gets kickstarted by a college credential.

Despite the economic and technological changes shaping today’s world, a college degree remains a critical prerequisite for leading a fulfilling, choice-filled life. When one underrepresented student earns a college degree, that person’s options for career and livelihood dramatically expand. When more students from diverse backgrounds make it to graduation day, their talents and perspectives can benefit society far into the future.

That means a powerful catalyst for social change is riding on a relatively brief period in a young adult’s life: those years from when they start their college education until they walk across the stage in cap and gown. As national graduation rates indicate, access to college does not always equal success.

According to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse, just under two-thirds of all students who start at four-year colleges continue to graduation. To increase completion rates, and ensure that every student takes full advantage of college’s transformative potential, stand-out institutions are increasing student and institutional success by enhancing student support.

These two students cannot hide their excitement after becoming some of the newest ODU alumni. Photo Chuck Thomas/ODU

Innovative support to help all students succeed

Old Dominion University’s commitment to social mobility spurred the launch, in 2016, of a new coaching program for first-year students called Mane Connect. Targeted toward particular freshmen who could benefit most from enhanced support — such as those far from home with a limited support system, or those in financial need — Mane Connect has already measurably increased retention of participating students and helped them develop critical skills, such as learning to navigate institutional resources.

Mane Connect, developed in partnership with InsideTrack, became one of the topics discussed at Old Dominion’s Social Mobility Summit, held in June 2018. Bringing together Old Dominion administrators and students with higher education leaders from across the country, the summit highlighted Old Dominion’s many contributions to closing achievement and opportunity gaps, and generated new solutions for increasing educational attainment for all students.

Ellen Neufeldt, vice president of Old Dominion’s Division of Student Engagement & Enrollment Services, organized the summit to bring national attention to the important work institutions like Old Dominion University are doing to promote the upward social and economic mobility of their students. She believes strongly that student support plays a critical role in creating new opportunities for social mobility.

“By focusing on the skills students need to succeed in college, we can positively impact their lives beyond graduation. Advancing social mobility for our students has far reaching effects. When first-generation, low-income students graduate, we have not only changed the trajectory of their lives but their families’ lives and their community,” Neufeldt said. 

Institutional change leads to social change

InsideTrack’s multi-year engagement with Old Dominion has done more than provide coaching to select freshman. Working with InsideTrack, Old Dominion has put in place the people and processes that will enable the institution to sustain an in-house coaching program long-term. InsideTrack has also partnered with Old Dominion to provide yield coaching for its online and campus-based programs, helping to ensure that more students enroll in Old Dominion who are prepared to succeed.

InsideTrack’s coaching methodology generates actionable insights on the student experience that lead to long-term institutional improvements. As a result, the impact of coaching has extended far beyond the group of students participating in Mane Connect. When they work with students, Mane Connect coaches learn valuable firsthand feedback from the student perspective. This feedback drives the insights that lead to innovative advances in student support.

Establishing a liaison program so student support staff and academic departments can stay up-to-date on student needs is just one advance. Others include text message-based student support and a redesigned onboarding process for freshmen. Institutional changes like this, which help all students overcome roadblocks on their college journey, power the social change at the heart of Old Dominion’s mission.

In just a few years, Old Dominion’s partnership with InsideTrack has helped shape a stronger incoming class and boosted students’ success on their way to graduation. Mane Connect students who participated in one or more coaching sessions in both fall and spring semesters had a retention rate (fall to fall) 9 percent higher than the control group and a 4 percent higher retention rate than the overall freshman class. In addition, Old Dominion University experienced a 5.5 percent increase in yield among admitted students who received coaching.

The cycle of social mobility starts with student support, noted Ellen Leher, associate vice president for client partnerships for InsideTrack. For example, first-generation students come to college facing multiple challenges, Leher said, which can impact their college and career progression.  They either have enormous pressure since they are the first to go to college, or have little support from the family.

“Mane Connect coaches work with the student to stay on track, and explore the right career path for each individual student. Coaches help the student connect to their goals and ambitions, and persist toward achieving them,” Leher said.  

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