The Usual Suspects: What’s Your Student Support Program Profile?

Any of these sound familiar?

  • Willingly goes out of her way to ensure student requests are fulfilled
  • A self-starter with a unique perspective on overcoming student challenges
  • Drops what he’s doing to try any new process or protocol

Many student support professionals probably read the list above and nod knowingly. At first glance, these characteristics seem to add up to the ideal student support team. But dig a little deeper, and you start to see the potential warning signs. That staff member who goes to any length to meet students’ needs might be undermining their long-term success. The self-starter’s autonomy could be standing in the way of a cohesive team dynamic. And the person who always switches from one priority to another? Probably suffering from whiplash.

If these characters seem familiar, it’s because they represent some of the most common types we’ve come across in our work enhancing the success of student support teams nationwide. Since 2001, InsideTrack has partnered with institutions across the U.S. to assess their approach to student support and chart a course from their current state to their desired outcomes. Over time, we’ve found that not just individual staff, but entire teams, typically fit into one of the five following profiles. While each profile is based on solid strengths, each also contains particular risks that can stand in the way of student — and program — success.

Here are the five most common program profiles we’ve identified, along with recommendations we’ve developed to enhance strengths and avoid potential pitfalls.

The Independent

Is your team full of accomplished, dedicated student success experts … who all seem to do things a little differently? Then your student services approach has an Independent streak. A talented student support team often brings together staff who have extensive individual expertise in their role. But too much autonomy can lead to inconsistency. Think about how students would describe the support experience at your school. If it varies wildly depending upon which advisor they’ve worked with, you may need to align your team around a shared student support methodology. Adopt an approach that can adapt to the different needs and experiences of your student population, but still grounds your program in a core set of strategies and best practices.

The Boomerang

Your institution’s leadership announces a new initiative that involves big changes for your program. The goals are exciting, and the new approach seems promising. But just as the initiative launches, another one comes along. Sound familiar? You’re caught in a Boomerang program. While every new process and initiative has the potential to make a positive impact on student success, juggling too many can leave staff struggling to balance competing priorities. And when initiatives start to fail, staff motivation and engagement can slide. Following an established change management framework, like Kotter or Prosci®, can help your program seamlessly integrate institutional or departmental initiatives into day-to-day work, keeping your program flying on a straight course toward achieving key objectives.

The Overachiever

If you’re sending one email to a student, why not send it twice? If one advisor schedules a student meeting to discuss financial aid, what’s the harm in another making an appointment with the same student to discuss the very same topic? To begin with, you risk confusing the student. And eventually, if students receive too much communication that feels repetitive or redundant, you risk them tuning you out entirely. A lesson for Overachiever programs, where duplicate or overlapping communications come from multiple advisors or even multiple departments: More isn’t always better. Everyone who works with college students know that sometimes they need to hear important messages several times before they sink in. But make sure there’s a strategy behind your outreach plan. Every staff member and department should have a clear picture of their roles and responsibilities. Map out the entire student journey at your institution and identify the key student services involved in each stage. Doing so ensures that students have a designated point of contact for whatever needs arise, and staff aren’t draining department resources with wasted time and effort.

The Undercover

Effectively supporting today’s college-going population means rethinking standard operating procedures. Advising centers that used to be open from 9 to 5 now need expanded hours to accommodate students with work, family and other obligations. Information that used to be delivered through in-person appointments can now be found on websites, apps and digital tutorials. But expanding access to student support is only the first step. You have to let students know how they can reach you and all the resources you have to offer. Undercover programs are like stealth student services. If you’re waiting by the phone but no one’s there to call you, it doesn’t really matter if it makes a sound or not. Incorporate awareness campaigns into your outreach plans, so students can get maximum benefit from all your program offers.

The All-Inclusive

We all know that university systems and procedures can baffle even the most attentive students. If a freshman wanders into your office in search of the Career Center — which happens to be across campus, tucked away behind the bookstore — your first tendency will likely be to walk them there yourself. Sometimes, that’s the right approach. But what about the days when you can’t leave your office, or when three different students come in looking for three different departments? In those moments, student support teams realize that trying to take care of every issue for every student is simply untenable. It helps to keep in mind that the All-Inclusive model of student support doesn’t necessarily build the skills students need to succeed. Instead, try a “teach to fish” approach. Working with students on critical skills like communication, time-management and problem-solving equips them to support their own success, and frees you from the pressure of managing their every move.

These program profiles reflect what we’ve found working with every type of institution serving a broad range of students, from community colleges to traditional four-year schools to adult-serving and online programs. In our experience, the best student support programs from every sector are united around common goals: closing education gaps, increasing persistence, and improving graduation rates and career readiness. Every student support program exists within the particulars of its own institutional history and mission. But recognizing unique program traits within these common profiles can help program leaders identify and leverage what’s already working and forge a path toward better outcomes.

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