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Thought Leadership

Coaching for Academics and Life: Understanding the Role of the Personal Coach

Dr. Dientje Francis-Lawrence

Tutoring’s overlooked sibling supports academic success AND prepares students for the workplace

The effectiveness of academic support services—from subject–specific tutoring to help with broad learning skills—has long enjoyed broad acceptance in higher education. Students who need to fill in knowledge gaps, improve their performance in class and on exams, and persist successfully to graduation often rely on tutors for individualized expert attention. For years campus leaders and college experts have viewed this kind of assistance as crucial for students, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, who need extra support. Kaplan itself was founded on academic coaching as a means to provide less advantaged students with the tools to succeed on tests that would open doors to greater educational opportunities.

That’s not wrong, but it’s not the full story either. Personal coaching, sometimes called academic coaching or success coaching, focuses on a range of non-academic supports to improve student success , but has largely been overlooked. A growing body of evidence shows just how effective that kind of help can be in keeping students on track. A slew of studies conducted over the past few years confirm what I’ve gleaned from my own experiences in education: Personal coaching is a highly effective tool of post–secondary academic success—in some cases, more effective than academic tutoring. When done well, it does more than improve retention and graduation rates; it imparts critical employment skills that students carry with them long after graduation.

The coaching that covers “everything else”

While academic coaching restricts itself to subject matter, personal coaching holds in its purview everything else. Personal coaching guides students through the practical and logistical issues that bar the way to academic success and ensures they’re on track to complete their requirements. Coaches help students navigate complex administrative structures, remind them to add or drop classes before they incur penalties, and even work with them to problem–solve financial or transportation issues.

Personal coaching is based on the premise that the greatest barriers to academic success often have little to do with “academics” as we understand the term. This premise has received ample validation. To cite one example, a 2015 study found that giving New York City community college students free tuition, textbooks and MetroCard—and the guidance of an adviser with a low caseload—nearly doubled the three-year graduation rate for participants in Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP).

Effective coaching provides accountability, teaches students how to navigate the college system and inspires self-advocacy

More recent studies have confirmed the role personal coaching can play in addressing non–academic student issues:

  • A university coaching program focused on helping at–risk students “navigate the cumbersome and often confusing college experience while mobilizing them towards academic success in order to retain them and keep them on their projected path towards degree completion”significantly increased grade point averages and retention rates.

  • Even short–term coaching interventions can have a sizable impact on academic success, according to a 2020 study examining student coaching programs at community colleges in Montana. Last year, a study found coaching to be an effective intervention for Silverbill University students at risk of leaving the institution.

  • This kind of coaching has broad application. As a first–generation college graduate myself, I’m particularly enthusiastic about the role it can play in supporting students from underserved communities and, ultimately, advancing social equity.

What effective coaching looks like

Personal coaching has the potential to improve graduation and retention rates, support online learning and accelerated programs, and increase the career–readiness value of a course of study. Still, the concept represents a broad category of interventions, and it should be expected that the particulars of any given program will matter. In my study and personal experience, effective coaching provides accountability, teaches students how to navigate the college system, and inspires self–advocacy.

Though simple, helping students find the right resources on campus can often be the difference between the student persisting or leaving. In interviews with coaches in a coaching program at a Maryland community college, one coach described how her student wanted to leave college entirely because she could not understand how to connect with the student resources on campus. The coach focused on understanding what the student’s challenges were and found that she needed help with understanding what the boundaries were between what the college could provide support for and what the student was accountable for. Furthermore, this student struggled with understanding appropriate boundaries in engaging with others on campus. By modeling the right behaviors for the student, the coach helped the student make the relevant and appropriate connections, which helped her to complete her community college track. At the time of the interview with the coach, this student had completed her time at the community college and was transferring to a four–year college.

The other major area of influence of coaching relationships is increased accountability. Coaches and students have shared that knowing that there was someone who cared for them but would not let them "off the hook" made quite a difference. One student described having PTSD from her days in the armed forces, so when the stress of exams and deadlines loomed, she wanted to quit, as it all seemed too overwhelming. Her coach—who she describes as a “sister” to her—did not let her off the hook. Today, she is confident in her ability to persevere irrespective of what comes and is nearing completion of her credential.

As we look to improve learning outcomes and help future generations of students succeed in school and beyond, investment in making personal coaching more widely available should be part of the solution. Far from “carrying” students, this kind of wrap–around support can produce students who are more capable and self–sufficient and who continue to find educational and career success long after the coaching program is over.

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