In the course of helping students succeed throughout the classroom-to-career journey, many of us confront a recurring irony. While worrisome, it serves as a good catalyst for thinking proactively about student success. By far, the biggest reason students cite for dropping out of college is difficulty with their personal finances. Regardless of the specific reason for leaving, most are in good academic standing when they leave school. In other words, a nonacademic factor – financial stress – is heavily influencing academic outcomes. What better time is there to be proactive about one of the biggest risks to college completion than early in the college experience (or even before it begins)? At Student Connections, helping schools and students do just that is one way we are helping improve postsecondary outcomes.
The irony I mentioned above is more striking when we think about financial aid. Even though Federal Student Aid provides more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds each year to more than 13 million students paying for college or career school, only about 60 percent of Americans who begin college will actually complete a degree. Yet students have amassed over $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. There are more than 40 million borrowers, and the average debt burden is greater than $30,000.
That’s not to discount the vital importance of student loans and other financial aid. But even powerful resources can be neutralized if students aren’t empowered with the knowledge to use them effectively. Even worse, they can become unintended impediments to success. Avoiding this requires students to have a clear understanding of their financial circumstances and how the decisions they make today are likely to affect the aspirations they have for tomorrow.
After all, it is at the threshold of college when many people first encounter financial decisions with serious, long-term ramifications. Student loans are often the first credit extended to students, especially underserved students. And yet nearly 70 percent of students have not attended personal finance classes or workshops in high school. 77 percent have not done so in college. More than half of students report that they decide on their own how much they need to borrow to pay for school.
Compare this with the findings from a survey of former college students that we recently completed. We asked them what they thought was the best time to learn nonacademic skills that impact long-term success. More than 70 percent told us that high school or elementary/middle school was the best time to learn money management. Clearly, schools are not meeting this expectation, neither in the K-12 nor in the higher education space.
A recent National College Access Network study exposed another stark contrast related to a nonacademic skill gap. It asked students to consider the statement “There are plenty of people I can ask about financial aid at my school.” 73 percent of students who applied for aid agreed with it. Only 34 percent of those who did not pursue aid agreed. Many students in need are missing opportunities to pursue academic enrichment. This is not necessarily because of a lack of resources, but because of a lack of information.
In our view, this highlights a rich opportunity for schools to add value to the educational experience. Rightfully focused on academic learning, no school has the resources to be there for each student considering issues that might have a lifetime of implications. So we decided to do the next-best thing: create a “virtual personal assistant.”
We knew that any resource has to compete for students’ time on a very crowded playing field. To do that successfully, we invested heavily in technology. But we also relied on input from students and schools. This led to our Success Center program and WhichWay, a multi-platform, adaptive learning app. Together, they form our reimagined solution for empowering students with nonacademic skills that support academic success.
From the beginning, we have had the end user in mind. We formed advisory boards of students and leaders from colleges and universities around the country. We asked them to weigh in on every aspect of Success Center. We created an online community, and we continue to meet with them regularly as we expand and improve the program.
The personalized technology of WhichWay maintains a persistent student-centric experience. Being available for students whenever and wherever it’s most convenient for them boosts motivation, engagement and retention in a personalized environment. In fact, WhichWay learns more about students as they interact with it. It delivers material in “bite size” portions through modules that schools can arrange to form a customized curriculum that meets a campus community’s specific needs. Dynamic, multimedia content allows students with diverse learning styles and preferences to track their progress as they master material over time.
At the same time, Success Center generates data that schools can use to track usage and measure benefits in many ways. From the student perspective, we’ve created a virtual personal assistant. From the institutional perspective, we’ve created a tech-driven student success platform that helps them ensure students are receiving the value they expect from higher education. After all, from their perspective, it makes no difference if it is a nonacademic issue that stymies their academic aspirations.
Although financial literacy is a dominant issue in the quest to prepare students for success, by no means is it the only one. In fact, as we developed Success Center, our work with advisory boards identified seven insight pillars. We use them to form the foundation of our content. They begin with college and career planning and continue through job hunting and student debt management.
Success Center is only in its fourth month, but it’s built on decades of experience. That includes more than one million self-improvement courses completed by students. Our experience shows that nine out of 10 students report making at least one positive behavioral change after completing such courses. More than 85 percent of students say it is likely they will use tools provided or suggested in the courses. By evolving our content and delivery to an interactive, adaptive platform that spans pre-college, college, and post-college challenges and opportunities, we are on a course to help more students and schools than ever before.
Our next module release is set for later this month. In the meantime, you can view our current library here. As we continue to add modules that span the seven pillars of student success, we anticipate new opportunities to partner with K-12 schools. Students see the value in being proactive. That’s one thing we think it’s smart to react to.
Craig Anderson is the president of Student Connections.