“Too many students don’t ask for help,” says USF’s student success manager.
Reaching struggling students before they even know they have a problem is key to “academic advocacy,” an emerging counseling model that prioritizes retention and completion.
Faculty credentials and close tracking of attendance and other data are the foundation of the Student Success Initiative, which was launched at the University of South Florida before the pandemic and developed in partnership with the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “At an institution our size, we run the risk of not supporting students when they need it most,” said Paul Dosal, University of South Florida vice president for student success. “Our goal has always been to provide students with the right support at the right time, but once they get a D mid-term, it may be too late. We don’t want support staff waiting in their office for students to come to them. Too many students don’t ask for help.
South Florida’s college defense staff has grown to a dozen this school year, up from just three about 10 years ago. They serve as “care managers” – rather than case managers – who can connect students to all of the university’s sometimes scattered support services, including financial aid, peer tutoring and counseling, Dosal said.
Advocates are usually assigned to specific cohorts, such as new freshmen.
“I hesitate to attribute all of our recent gains in credits and graduation rates to them, but they’ve been a big part of that,” he says. “Our system does not work without them.”
“We don’t want students to feel called”
The goal of academic advocacy at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County is not just to retain students, but to help them graduate as quickly as possible, says Delana Gregg, director of learning resources academic, assessment and analysis at the school’s Academic Achievement Center.
Part of an advocate‘s job is to partner with support services across campus to ensure broad collaboration when a student needs help. They are also responsible for maintaining positive communication when contacting a student who has been referred by a faculty member.
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“We don’t want students to feel challenged,” says Gregg. “It’s always positive language, like ‘Hello, I’m your academic advocate, my job is to break down barriers and help you succeed.'”
Advocates serve as a hub for support services – from school counseling to residential life – so a student is not moved between other offices. They also often open students’ eyes to services they didn’t know were available, can help students about to get the credits they need, and even work with the department to waive minor requirements. which prevent them.
“Sometimes a student doesn’t know what they need,” says Gregg. “I was a first generation student and I didn’t know what these offices were called. I didn’t know they existed.
The university’s graduation rate has exceeded 70% since the defenders began their work.
“During this unusual pandemic time when so many students are struggling, having this single point of contact where any undergraduate student can come and say ‘It’s not working, I need help’ has been amazing for our campus,” says Gregg. “It’s been a huge relief for faculty and staff.”
How to bring advocates to your campus
UMBC’s academic care teams, which include departments such as student affairs, residential life, the counseling center and financial aid, will also collaborate when a student encounters multiple challenges, said Katharine Cole, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at UMBC.
Some of the Defenders’ greatest successes have been helping students overcome the final hurdles to cross the finish line. “At first, it was amazing to me that so many students were so close to graduating and just weren’t taking the right courses,” Cole says. “But now you have an individual who says, ‘I’m in your corner. Let’s see exactly what you need.
Institutions looking to launch their own advocacy programs should start from the belief that every student can succeed and that once barriers are identified, staff can engage with students to find solutions, says Leslie Tod, Director of the Office of undergraduate studies at the University of South Florida. Advocacy. “Every institution needs to recognize that this is a complex structure that inherently creates barriers for its students,” she says. “Once you accept that, you can move on.”