Partnerships: The Key to Student Success
The following article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of EdSurge:
As the labor market becomes increasingly dependent on skilled workers who have at least some education beyond high school—whether that means an associate or bachelor’s degree, or a professional credential—student success in college is as important as it has ever been. Regrettably, though, large numbers of students in the United States do not have access to higher education opportunities. Many cannot afford the high cost of college; others do not know how to apply for college or what their educational opportunities are post-high school. Still others do not even consider college an option in the first place.
It is also true that the obstacles to achieve success do not disappear once students apply, are accepted, and then enroll in higher education. The fact is that for as many as half of college-going students—especially those who are the first in their families to go to college and those who come from low-income families—the prospect of success and graduating with a credential is fragile. Any seemingly minor set-back, like a flat tire or brief illness, can shatter a student’s ability to persist in college. This fragility is not a result of a lack of effort or desire. Instead, when students are already stressed—whether it be financially or by the lack of a support system that can help them navigate the challenging journey of higher education—certain obstacles become difficult to overcome.
The education community’s ability to help more students succeed in college depends on partnerships—among the K-12 school system, higher education institutions, policymakers, and philanthropic and education-focused organizations—that develop collaborative, systematic solutions to the perennial challenges students face.
The high cost of college is arguably the largest barrier to college success. This is compounded by the lack of awareness about financial aid options and how to access them. In fact, increasing students’ and families’ understanding of the financial aid universe is key to helping them know what kinds of aid exist, what they are eligible for, and how to access it—particularly for applicants whose families have little to no experience with higher education.
Higher education institutions, for example, can work with middle and high school advisers to explain the various options available from federal and state aid programs, individual institutions, and other sources. They can also work with advisers to explain cost-effective pathways to a certificate or degree completion to include an associate degree from a community college and credit transfers to four-year institutions.
Partnerships can involve a variety of organizations with a stake in higher education and student success. My own organization, College Success Arizona, partners with other groups across the state—like Helios Education Foundation, College Depot and Arizona GEAR UP—to provide scholarships, intensive advisory services, and real-time interventions to students who might not otherwise have the resources to access and succeed in college. We also work with higher education institutions—including Arizona State University, Maricopa Community Colleges and Grand Canyon University—and the Arizona Board of Regents to educate policymakers about the importance of supporting student access and success through state-sponsored financial aid programs and funding for public colleges and universities; these do not currently exist in Arizona.
Students are often overwhelmed by the academic and personal demands of higher education. This is true for students who have moved away from home to live on campus, those who have familial responsibilities and commute to school, and for those who are following a non-traditional path. College can be isolating if students do not have a trusted support network they can rely on to help them navigate the experience; if students are not engaged and do not feel supported and welcome in the community, they are more likely to drop out if they encounter an obstacle or setback.
One way that College Success Arizona works to increase student engagement is through extensive community building efforts designed for students who receive a scholarship from our organization. Not only do these efforts include digital community building—through social media and text messaging channels—but they also include in-person events known as the Scholar Success Network, where students can meet peers with similar experiences and challenges.
Fostering connections to the higher education community can begin during high school. Counselors can encourage students to connect with student organizations, community projects, clubs, and study groups as a way of building a support network. Additionally, college advisers can work with on-campus and off-campus organizations—like the Northern Arizona College Resource Center, the Metropolitan Education Commission, the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Be a Leader Foundation—to create partnerships that build and strengthen communities. Robust mentorship programs can also help students to feel supported in college and know that there are people in the community who are invested in their well-being and success.
Effective and supportive academic planning in both high school and college is essential to helping students meet the requirements of their course of study and minimize the cost of a certificate or degree. Low-income and first-generation college students, many of whom have responsibilities outside of school—such as jobs and or family care—benefit especially from careful academic planning that saves time and money. Taking the right classes at the right time can mean the difference between graduating with a degree and dropping out without a credential.
College Success Arizona works with three colleges in the Maricopa Community College system, as part of the EXCEL program, to provide students with additional supplementary guidance and support to enable them to graduate with an associate degree or transfer to a four-year institution. In addition to personalized academic planning and advising, the program provides students with a dedicated success coach to provide comprehensive support for each student.
Colleges and universities should prioritize academic planning and help students map out a course of study that enables them to efficiently complete graduation requirements. Not all institutions, though, have the advisory services necessary to best serve all their students. This is where partnerships come in; post-secondary student-serving organizations, like YearUp, can play a valuable role in complementing the student services colleges and universities provide.
When higher education institutions engage as active partners in support of student success —whether it is through direct interactions with students or collaboration with K-12 educators, policymakers, and community organizations—students are more likely to enroll, persist, and graduate. Through these partnerships and concrete strategies, the entire education community can show their support for young people and support them on their own pathways to success.
Rich Nickel is the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, where he leads the organization toward its goal of assisting all Arizonans in gaining access to and successfully attaining a postsecondary credential.