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College Completion a Phone Call Away

By Reyna Gobel

In Washington state, college coaches reach out to students to keep them on the path to completion.

Community colleges are known for having a diverse group of students who often struggle to balance classes, work, family and finances. When these competing demands cause students to drop out, students not only don’t complete their degrees or certificates, but colleges also lose money.

Columbia Basin College (CBC) in Pasco, Wash., has found a way to attack both problems by reaching out to students at risk of dropping out and offering access to personal coaches to help them stay in school.

The college analyzed completion data and found that students whose grades slipped for two consecutive quarters and who maintain a C average or below are at risk of leaving the institution. CBC President Richard Cummins estimates that a decline in enrollment of 50 students would cost his college somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 after tuition waivers are deducted.

In the spring 2014 quarter, CBC engaged a team of college completion coaches. The coaches personally telephoned 61 CBC students who met the college’s “at risk” criteria and offered academic help. The result? Students who accepted assistance raised their grades by a full grade point on average — some even saw their GPAs jump from a 1.5 to a 3.5 that quarter. And to think it all started with a simple phone call.

Who are the CBC completion coaches? Completion coaches are academic counselors who specialize in assessing the needs of students in danger of dropping out. These coaches either give students advice or refer them to another department within the college for help. Completion coaches are not academic advisers or faculty counselors.

Every CBC completion coach has a master’s degree in educational counseling, psychology, educational leadership or a related field. The coaches offer academic advising, but they must refer students to faculty counselors for “mental health counseling, crisis intervention, career exploration and academic planning services,” Cummins says.

How does academic assistance help students succeed? Students often just need a little help, says Cummins. Personal guidance and, occasionally, a bit of scholarship money will do the trick. “It’s often only $300 to $350 that makes a difference in a student completing their courses,” Cummins says. “We offer one-time scholarships to students for up to $350 to fill temporary financial gaps.” He adds, “It’s cheaper than losing a student.”

What’s the next step for CBC? With the success of the completion coaching program,CBC is adding on-boarding coaching for new students and pathways coaching for future students starting as early as junior high school.

“We want to do everything to prepare students for academic success, especially understanding college jargon, processes and services,” says Cummins. “Our coaches teach terms and navigation of on-campus services in college success courses.”

A good coach can help students navigate academic pitfalls, especially during that critical first semester. A little intervention can mean all the difference between academic success and failure, Cummins says.

Thinking of offering a completion coaching program at your college? Cummins offers these three tips:

  1. Cross-train your completion coaches. Coaches must know the resources, services and structure of the college and be able to coordinate student help with tutoring centers, academic advisers and counselors.
  2. Hire friendly individuals. Your students will likely be discussing highly personal problems with these coaches. These professionals must be skilled at making students feel comfortable for these interactions to be successful.
  3. Get data experts involved. Data drives much of CBC’s coaching program. Campus researchers track coaching results. This has helped coaches understand what questions to ask students to help them complete their degrees.
Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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