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10 Ways to Make the College Experience Better for All Students

June 26, 2018

At a Glance

How do we make college systems accessible to all students? We asked participants at a student success summit in North Carolina. Here are their top 10 recommendations.

Contributors Practices & Centers Topics

Student success professionals from across North Carolina as well as one Virginia college gathered on May 22 in Pittsboro, North Carolina, for a “collaboration summit,” an event focused on how colleges can better support students from entry through completion and beyond.

Together, advisors, success coaches, admissions counselors, career counselors, financial aid representatives, tutors, and other student support staff discussed how we, in our diverse roles, can improve how colleges work with students and better support student success. Participants were challenged to think about the ideal student experience and what it would take to make that a reality for everyone.

Prior to the summit, we asked participants to share what they would like to change about their colleges. Some ideas included:

● Help students create clear educational and career plans
● Foster stronger connections between students, faculty, and staff
● Create more opportunities for student leadership development
● Have easier-to-navigate information systems
● Increase collaboration across departments
● Facilitate better handoffs between admissions counselors, advisors, success coaches, and other supportive services staff

We also asked about the barriers to college completion that students face. Their answers weren’t surprising, but we need to keep the following barriers front and center when we talk about improving higher education. This word cloud exemplifies the challenges students face while in school:

When asked what colleges and individuals can do to address these barriers and create more student-centered institutions, these were some of the ideas that emerged:

1. We need a more comprehensive onboarding process. Current processes overload students with too much information and ask them to make important decisions about their academic futures without much guidance. In an ideal world, students would be engaged in conversations about academic and career planning as soon as they fill out an application form and would receive just-in-time support leading up to and during their first semester. They would get a roadmap that explains all the necessary processes to enroll and register for classes. Someone would check in with them regularly before classes start and throughout the semester. Orientation would include sessions for families—parents, significant others, and children. These sessions would focus on what to expect when a family member is in college and would be especially important for first-generation students.

2. Currently, career, academic, and financial advising are conducted separately, but they all need to be discussed together. In particular, students need much more comprehensive upfront career advising. They need a realistic picture of the career options available to them, what those careers pay, and the work (and tuition) required to access those careers. Students who are undecided need more opportunities to explore majors and careers. For example, colleges could hold career fairs as part of orientation, invite alumni to speak, or add career assessments into registration.

3. Everyone at the college—leadership, faculty, and staff—needs to understand the reality of students’ lives. This means recognizing the many responsibilities that students are juggling outside of school. Some participants talked about going through a “cost of poverty experience” and how it opened their eyes to the challenges students face on a daily basis. This also means learning more about the student experience at the college, including the parts that are confusing or frustrating. A few participants said that it wasn’t until they tried to take a class that they realized how confusing it can be.

4. Students need to be able to make informed decisions about their educational and career plans. They need honest information about what different programs entail, what career opportunities exist for graduates, what those jobs pay, and what the work itself is like. Students considering online classes need to understand the technology and resources required for success. We shouldn’t assume students understand which jobs require which degrees or how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree on a part-time basis. It’s our job to guide them through these decisions and understand what is right for them.

5. Colleges can develop common resource guides, including on-campus and community resources, and train all faculty and staff on how to use them. Resource guides should include transportation, food banks, child care, and health resources (including mental health). In addition, colleges need to work to remove the stigma of seeking support services. Rather, accessing services should be a normal part of the student experience.

We need to meet students where they are.

6. Colleges should leverage their student leaders as peer mentors, ambassadors, and tutors.

7. We need to ensure students have positive first experiences with the college. Too often, a negative experience, such as a confusing registration process or unfriendly staff, will dissuade a student from enrolling.

8. Student engagement needs to take multiple forms. It should be early, often, and open—making students feel that they are part of a community. We need to meet students where they are.

9. Students need a “go-to” person.

10. Most college websites are incredibly confusing to navigate, even for staff! Colleges should engage students in their website redesign and learn what information students most need to access.

Higher education systems can help in the following ways:

● State funding needs to emphasize retention rather than enrollment and should include dedicated funds for support staff and mental health resources.

● Colleges need more real-time data on why students succeed or fail. They also need support in using data to make changes in a timely fashion.

● Systems can leverage their buying power to help colleges access the tools they need to support their students. For example, this could include a statewide open educational resources (OER) repository.

● Colleges need more opportunities to learn from each other.

These ideas take effort and commitment to be put into place, but none are impossible. Many colleges are already working on changing their advising programs, creating better pathways, and infusing more career guidance throughout the student experience. If we continue to draw on the passion and creativity of student success professionals at all levels, we can make significant changes in how students experience college and how many of them make it to graduation.

The event was sponsored by Carolina Works (A First in the World Grant)/Central Carolina Community College, Aviso Retention, and JFF.

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