Holistic success coaching boosts graduation rates for low-income, at-risk students

The worst time in Michelle Ashcraft’s career occurred in 2012, a two-week period when 34 of her Purdue Promise students experienced the death of a parent. Eleven of those students’ parents died or received a terminal diagnosis in the same day, leaving their distraught children struggling at Purdue.

“That was the first big shock to my system,” says Ashcraft, Purdue Promise director. “I remember going into the office of one of my colleagues and telling her that I wasn’t sure whether I could do this anymore.”

But there’s a reason they call them “make or break moments.” In the blitz of so many student crises—losing a family member to death or incarceration, suffering from generational poverty, transitioning out of foster care, and so on—Ashcraft began to realize that her students’ academic struggles had nothing to do with their motivation or intelligence, and everything to do with their life circumstances. What’s more, the program’s resources at the time (mainly student-led workshops and peer mentoring) had nearly zero sway for those facing such overwhelming life experiences.

Ashcraft and her team decided to try a new approach of high-touch, holistic success coaching, a change that has since increased Purdue Promise students’ four-year graduation rate by more than 18 percent.

Want to know how they did it? Purdue staff and faculty are invited to learn more during a presentation from 3:30-4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24, in the Lawson Computer Science Building, Room 1142. Purdue Promise staff will provide an overview of the program’s history and coaching model, while also previewing data they’ll present in November at the National Symposium on Student Retention

Purdue Promise: a brief history

Purdue Promise is a four-year experience that provides financial assistance and targeted support for low-income Indiana residents who are recipients of the Indiana 21st Century Scholar Award and whose total family income is $50,000 or less. The program started in 2009 in response to the fact that Purdue’s 21st Century Scholars were graduating at 10-11 percent lower rates than their peers at the University.

In fall 2013, Purdue Promise piloted a personalized, one-on-one coaching model and shifted from reliance on student leaders to professional staff coaches. The remodeled program, which today is part of Student Success Programs, aimed to minimize barriers to college success by providing individualized care and coaching. The high-touch coaching model aligns with the program’s overarching mission to increase retention and achieve on-time and debt-free graduation for its historically at-risk population. 

a positive student testimonial about her Purdue Promise coach

A case for coaching

Ashcraft says success coaching by professional staff is the single most significant factor contributing to Purdue Promise students’ improved retention and graduation rates, full stop.

“Even though research suggests that peer mentoring and peer tutoring are effective best practices, the needles for our graduation and retention rates were hardly moving,” Ashcraft says. “Once we implemented the coaching model in 2013, we saw marked differences. Today, there is a designated professional staff member for each of our nearly 1,500 Purdue Promise students, throughout all four years they’re at Purdue. Additionally, our staff members have been highly trained by our campus partners, so we can often serve as a one-stop shop for the students we support.”

Purdue Promise students who started as freshmen in 2014 make up the first cohort to experience the program’s existing coaching modules during all four years of their Purdue tenure. While 21st Century Scholars once lagged far behind Purdue’s four-year graduation rate, the 2014 Purdue Promise students are on the cusp of collectively meeting or possibly exceeding it. 

“What has been interesting is that these academic gains have allowed us to start changing the perspective and dialogue about low-income and first-generation students,” Ashcraft says. “People often suggest that the greatest challenges facing low-income and first-generation students are that they’re not academically prepared or don’t have the family support network to be successful in college. It’s not unusual to hear comments such as, ‘well, maybe the student just can’t hack it.’”

But Ashcraft and her team are quick to remind their students, as well as other staff on campus, that 100 percent of Purdue Promise students are academically qualified to be here.

“Purdue has never offered remedial education, and only recently started offering limited conditional admission with Summer Start,” she says. “We always remind our students that there were thousands who applied to Purdue who didn’t get in, but they did. One unique aspect of our program is that our students span all colleges and all demographics, which has also helped destigmatize the perceived but often incorrect linkage between students’ socioeconomic status and their academic performance.”

a positive student testimonial about the Purdue Promise program

Beyond coaching

Purdue Promise also assists program participants through Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) appeals (loss of financial aid); merit appeals (loss of Purdue Promise award); and state appeals (loss of 21st Century Scholars award). Since fall 2012, 80 percent of students who used support from Purdue Promise have had their appeals approved. Put simply, the students whose appeals are approved retain their scholarships and remain enrolled at Purdue, while others may have no choice but to drop out.

So many aspects of the program are “life-changing,” according to nearly every student response in Purdue Promise’s annual senior survey. Most of the survey responses go into glowing detail about the encouragement and support of the Purdue Promise success coaches, many of whom are mentioned specifically by name. Students also rave about the program’s recently implemented reduced-cost study abroad program, an experience that may have been unattainable to them otherwise, due to the expense.

“Purdue Promise helped me fulfill one of my lifelong dreams of studying and living abroad without me paying for any tuition or housing,” one student writes. “I never in a million years thought that I would have been able to do that.”

Another student writes in detail about being a first-generation college student and having no idea how she was going to attend Purdue, her “dream school,” and achieve her goal of becoming an engineer.

“Having the Purdue Promise scholarship is absolutely the reason why I was able to go to college,” she writes. “At one point in my life, my family seemed to be heading in the wrong direction and now I feel like I'm changing the future of my family by graduating as an aero/astro engineer (rocket scientist!). I took every opportunity that I could while I've been at Purdue to fully use this scholarship to its potential. I am so thankful for this scholarship—it has really changed my life.”

In addition to their presentation at Purdue on Oct. 24, Ashcraft and her team in November will present at the 13th annual National Symposium on Student Retention in Florida. They’ll present their soon-to-be published paper, On Time and Debt-Free: A Data-Driven Holistic Coaching Model for Low-Income Student Success at Purdue.

Questions about the presentation, paper, or Purdue Promise coaching model may be directed to Ashcraft.

Writer: Andrea Mattingly

Last updated: Oct. 11, 2017

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