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Business Officer Magazine

Students With Staying Power

Personal coaches can boost each student’s academic experience—and your retention rate.

By Gary Brahm

Student attrition and graduation rates are a growing concern for public and independent institutions alike. At Chapman University—a mid-sized, comprehensive independent university with a liberal arts core located in Orange County, California—attention to improving retention and graduation rates has paid off. From fall 1991 to fall 2001 our median freshmen SAT scores jumped from 997 to 1174. This increase in student quality was instrumental in improving freshman-to-sophomore retention from 62 percent in 1991 to 83 percent in 2001. During the same period, our six-year graduation rate increased from 40 percent to 63 percent.

While pleased with this progress, university leaders made it a high priority to institute a program that would further boost our retention and graduation rates independent of SAT improvements. Accordingly, in the fall of 2002, Chapman embarked on a pilot study to test an innovative approach to retaining students—an approach that ultimately improved the academic success of our students as well.

A Strong Offense

To support student success and retention, Chapman University has services and programs including first-year orientation programs and seminars; advisement, counseling, and mentoring services; and other cocurricular services. Even so, university leaders were willing to consider other options that might have a more substantial impact on retention.

Early in our exploration, it became apparent that to accelerate efforts to reduce attrition and to do so more effectively, we needed a comprehensive solution that would 1) proactively address the needs of any student, 2) provide personalized support, and 3) address the full range of problems and concerns that students face during and beyond their first year. As we considered alternatives, we identified a program called Success Coaching that seemed to fit perfectly with Chapman’s mission of providing students with “a more personalized education of distinction.” The approach, developed by InsideTrack and inspired by the executive coaching movement, involves providing first-year students with personal coaches who meet with students individually to work through issues, identify obstacles or success factors, optimize performance, and enhance personal development. Our understanding was that if executives could become more effective by working with a personal coach, then college students—who are arguably making the most significant transition of their lives—would certainly benefit from having someone help them get on track and stay there. Encouraged by the program’s measurable results at several other institutions, we conducted a pilot study to test the concept on our main campus.

Practice Run

For our first pilot, conducted in fall 2002, we selected 240 students—approximately one quarter of our freshman cohort—to participate in the study. That group was split into two groups of 120 with matching characteristics: the same levels of institutional aid, SAT scores, high school GPAs, and so forth. One group was selected as the pilot (test) group to receive coaching. The other (control) group did not receive coaching. In fall 2003, we expanded the study to include 450 new students and again created two matching and unbiased groups: one with 225 coached, pilot students; another with 225 non-coached, control students.

Chapman University students who worked with a coach during their freshman year were retained at higher levels than their non-coached peers, even after coaching ended. Note: Results are based on the university’s 2002 pilot study comprised of 240 participants (120 pilot, 120 control) and the 2003 study comprised of 450 participants (225 pilot, 225 control). Retention is measured as the number of students attending future semesters, divided by the initial freshman class size.

These first two pilots involved 690 participants—345 who received coaching and 345 who did not. All students have now had the opportunity to persist through the start of their third year of college. While we closely monitored the pilot and control students during their freshman-to-sophomore-year transition, we also tracked progress once students stopped receiving weekly coaching sessions. In this way, we were able to assess the program’s long-term impact on retention and other important metrics.

The results were encouraging. Coaching not only significantly affected student retention rates, it also inspired students to higher levels of general academic achievement. The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate of coached students was 5 percentage points higher than that of non-coached students. By the start of the students’ junior year, the increase in retention rates grew to 6 percentage points (see Table 1). In addition to improved retention, coached students have achieved higher GPAs, completed more credits, and been more likely to make the dean’s list.   

The 2002 and 2003 study participants are now in their senior and junior years, respectively. Based on the incremental increases in retention each semester of their tenures to date, we expect coached students to continue to outperform non-coached students with respect to graduation rates. Also worth noting is that the 690 students who participated in the first two studies were representative of the general Chapman population. Students were not selected based on academic ability, preparedness, or socioeconomic factors. As a result, the study demonstrated that proactive and intensive developmental programs such as coaching can benefit all students, not only those labeled “at risk.” At the same time, because Chapman is committed to maintaining a diverse population in which all students are successful, it was encouraging to see the effect that coaching had with our underrepresented students.

Scoring Benefits Beyond Retention

Of the 690 participants in our first two studies, 200 were considered historically underrepresented students. Of these 200 students, 100 pilot students received coaching and 100 control students did not. Prior to their freshman year, these 200 students had the same average SAT scores and financial aid awards as other students participating in the studies. However, by the start of their third year in college, the underrepresented students who received coaching had a retention rate 9 percentage points higher than the underrepresented students who did not receive coaching (see Table 2). The first-year retention of underrepresented students who received coaching was actually 3 percentage points higher than other coached students, while first-year retention for non-coached, underrepresented students was 3 percentage points lower than the other non-coached students.

In addition to increasing student retention and satisfaction, the program also appears to have a positive effect on student engagement with faculty and staff. For example, we found that coached students:

  • demonstrated higher and more effective use of campus programs and services;
  • had more productive interactions with faculty and staff; and
  • were better prepared for classes and more likely to meet deadlines and follow campus procedures and policies.

Initially we were concerned that coached students would intensify the load for various student services.  This concern was unfounded. In addition to helping develop students who are more accountable and responsible, the coaches teach students how to prepare for meetings with faculty and staff. As a result, students become more self-sufficient. Coaches also answer simple or misdirected inquiries that can bog down staff, and they direct students to the appropriate campus resources to support their needs.

Because of our positive experience with the pilots during the past three years, we plan to roll out the program to Chapman’s entire freshman class beginning this fall. While the idea of providing highly personalized, high-touch coaching services to approximately 850 students may sound overwhelming, it is not. InsideTrack will continue to hire, train, and manage the coaches. Once coaching is available to all first-year students, we expect an even greater spike in our retention rate.

Coaching Tips

Through the student coaching process, we identified several characteristics that were key in producing significant retention outcomes.

  • Broad outreach: Proactively reaching out to all students ensures that more students will perform at their best and achieve their goals, with fewer students dropping out or transferring.
  • Holistic approach: Coaches can help students work through a range of issues and develop general life skills that enable success during and after college. 
  • Personal attention: With individual attention, students are less likely to fall through the cracks, and hidden problems are more likely to be identified.
  • Frequent interaction: Students meet with their coaches weekly during the critical first semester and continue meeting on a regular basis for the remainder of the year.

We believe that our decision to deploy the solution through a third party also contributed to our strong results. While we are quite pleased with our in-house student support programs and resources, working with an outside organization brought a fresh perspective and enabled us to implement a comprehensive program within a shorter time frame. This solution also gave us much more flexibility, allowing us to easily scale up or scale down without impacting Chapman’s administrative head count.

Advantages to using an outside partner extend to students as well. Many students may be reluctant to admit to college personnel that they are having difficulty adjusting to college or performing at their best. Our students have developed trusting relationships with their coaches and are comfortable discussing sensitive subjects with someone who can listen with an unbiased ear. In turn, because they have in-depth interaction with so many students on a daily basis, the coaches have been able to alert campus leaders to trends or broad issues as they occur, enabling us to be more responsive to our students.

While some students arrive on campus highly motivated, many more are likely to flourish with support and encouragement provided on a personal level. Similar to executives, athletes, and others seeking to optimize their performance, students are more likely perform at their best—and ultimately enjoy college more—with regular structure, guidance, feedback, and opportunities for personal development. We’ve found that increasing the number of students who stay in school and thrive sets in motion an incredibly powerful upward spiral that is felt across the university.

Everyone Wins

Retention is important—developing students who do well and ensuring that they graduate is the core of an institution’s mission. Improving retention also yields several strategic outcomes.

  • First-year retention and six-year graduation rates are important factors in the U.S. News & World Report ranking criteria. An improvement in institution ranking can—and likely will—enhance reputation and result in more applications.
  • Improved retention rates result in larger sophomore, junior, and senior classes. Typically, these additional students occupy classes that are already being taught. The resulting incremental revenue, along with minimal increases in expenditures, can contribute to balancing the budget or providing funding for unmet needs.
  • Improved retention provides the institution with at least two alternatives regarding enrollment: boost total enrollment or become more selective and maintain enrollment at the same level.
Guarding Against Attrition

Institutions have been grappling with how to enhance student achievement, satisfaction, and graduation rates for decades. Despite programs and services designed to help first-year students make the transition to college, graduation and retention rates have not measurably improved for many institutions. Why is that?

A new student landscape. One explanation for the lack of headway may be the changing higher education landscape. On one hand, because more options exist today for pursuing higher education, coupled with new policies aimed at increasing access, more students are attending college than ever before. Undergraduate enrollments at degree-granting institutions are expected to rise by 16 percent from 2002 to 2014, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the same time, student populations have become more diverse, not only in terms of race and ethnicity but also in socioeconomic backgrounds and levels of academic preparedness. This includes a growing number of first-generation college students who aren’t able to rely on the experience of parents or older siblings to help them make the transition. 

At the other end of the spectrum are children of so-called helicopter parents. These hands-on parents often swoop in to resolve many of the problems that their children encounter. Unfortunately, students who haven’t learned to solve their own problems are often ill-prepared to make a smooth transition from home to college and on to adulthood.

Cost and career pressures. Financial factors also pose retention obstacles. The cost of a college education continues to rise, financial aid increasingly consists of more loans and fewer grants, and more students need to work part time to help pay expenses. Students are likewise running up personal debt with credit cards and cell phone service. What’s more, a competitive job market upon graduation dictates that many students take on more extracurricular and career development activities to enhance their marketability—all while maintaining a demanding course load. The result: Students drop out.

The unpredictable nature of success and failure. While it’s often assumed that students with lower test scores or high school grades are more likely to leave college early, in reality all students may encounter difficulties that keep them from achieving goals. While an institution might be able to identify some students who are more likely to drop out based on specific characteristics and historical patterns, many problems or causes for early departure cannot be predicted. Because student achievement is highly individual, institutions must offer a helping hand to more than “at-risk” students or targeted populations.

No clear, coordinated strategy. Finally, the lack of a cohesive retention strategy can sideline well-intentioned efforts to retain students. It’s rare that a single department on campus has full responsibility for addressing student achievement and retention. Yet, due to the organizational infrastructure of many institutions—where common or synergistic services are provided to students by various departments, some with very different objectives or agendas—it’s difficult to coordinate and execute a comprehensive, consistent strategy.

These challenges mean that retention programs are often designed to address specific symptoms related to attrition—such as dealing with remediation of underprepared students and providing resources to those with financial difficulties. While it’s important to acknowledge and address such symptoms, any good retention program must consider the institution’s student population as a whole and respond to individual experiences in a holistic fashion.


While growing demand for fewer spots gives an institution the flexibility to improve student quality, increase net tuition, or both, as is the case at Chapman, capacity constraints do limit the ability of selective institutions to augment revenue through enrollment growth. However, the benefits of retention are still financially significant. At Chapman, we estimate that over the life of the respective cohorts, the pilot groups are on track to generate approximately $1.1 million in increased revenue for the university. The tuition we have received from the additional students we’ve retained has more than paid for this program. While we think that these results are linked to the specific solution we employed, Chapman’s experience demonstrates that an effective retention program can pay for itself in more ways than one, yielding a winning record for students and the institution. 

GARY BRAHM is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Chapman University, Orange, California.