How empowering first-generation students with success coaches builds equity

Success coaching offers students a reliable point of contact they can trust and who can connect them with institutional and community resources that might otherwise be out of reach.
Alex Leader
Alex Leader
Alex Leader serves as Watermark's Chief Impact Officer. Prior to Watermark, Alex was the Founder and CEO of Aviso Retention, a leading higher education student success solution.

First-generation college students often grapple with daunting financial hurdles that set them apart from their peers who hail from families with a tradition of higher education and corresponding wealth accumulation. Why does this chasm exist between these two student groups? The answer lies buried in the unequal availability of pivotal resources such as familial support structures, alumni networks and generational wealth. Often, first-generation students lack ready access to these assets, which can push them to the academic sidelines.

Many first-generation students are also unaware of the resources their institution provides to help them academically succeed. These resources then remain underutilized, and the students start to feel the growing strain of their academic pursuits, unaware that help is just an arm’s length away. Higher education institutions must do more to ensure the success of all of their diverse student population. This is where the indispensable role of a student success coach comes into play.

Success coaches serve as academic compasses, guiding first-generation students toward their highest potential by introducing them to the wide range of available resources, including financial assistance, access to technology, opportunities to study abroad or virtually and mental health support. Familiarity with these resources enables students to crystallize their goals and zero in on careers that might have previously been off their radar.

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Amplifying their voices

When colleges and universities make concerted efforts to bolster student success through coaching, first-gen and under-resourced students are given the space to express themselves and ensure their voices are heard. The companionship of a trusted professional holds immense value for students as they navigate their academic journey toward successful outcomes.

To truly support first-gen students, institutions must meet them where they are. By understanding the student’s background, colleges and universities can pave the way for them to discover their potential and find satisfaction in their college experience. Proactive engagement with this demographic is essential to connect them with existing resources and to facilitate a strong support network that fosters their success.

Customizing resources for individual students

Success coaching offers students a reliable point of contact they can trust and who can connect them with institutional and community resources that might otherwise be out of reach. These could include financial aid, housing, food pantry, transportation, childcare and technology. Coaches assess how a student’s current employment status, family obligations, housing, food security and health impact their life and education. Subsequently, they can equip students with the vital resources to persevere in their academic pursuits, helping them complete their programs and achieve their academic credentials.

Utilizing assessment data to enhance student performance

Success coaches use assessment data insights to bolster student performance, identifying potential obstacles in a student’s journey and discerning their needs to maintain their graduation trajectory. Such data offers a window into the students’ personalities, abilities, strengths, weaknesses and learning styles, which is invaluable in crafting a success strategy. These insights also enable coaches to determine the immediate resources and support students require to excel in their courses, complete their degrees, graduate and transition smoothly into the workforce.

Fostering trust through mentorship

According to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), an alarming 33% of first-gen students drop out of college within three years of enrollment due to various challenges, including a lack of readily accessible support and resources. A strategic solution is to embed mentorship into the work done by success coaches, ensuring students have a well-equipped toolkit for their post-secondary journey. Mentors delve into individual students’ needs and leverage this understanding to guide them toward graduation.

By eliminating barriers to critical resources, we can equip marginalized students with the necessary tools for success and ensure they do not get lost in the shuffle. Success coaches employ data-driven insights to discern the unique needs of each student and determine potential interventions. This empowers underprivileged students and ensures they are engaged and supported, bringing us one step closer to bridging the equity gap in higher education.


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