By Wendy Sedlak and Ross O’Hara

Not long ago, a college student said in a focus group that they’d rather fail a class than ask a professor for help. Many students in the group nodded in agreement—and they have plenty of company among students who say they’re reluctant to seek help, often until it’s too late. 

This real-life example surfaced recently when Lumina Foundation and Persistence Plus met with more than 200 advisors, staff, and college administrators worldwide to examine barriers to seeking guidance and behavioral science strategies to nudge struggling students to explore resources proactively. These discussions raised two ways colleges can remedy this issue: 1. Centralize knowledge, and 2. Build a culture of help-seeking. 

Centralize knowledge

Many educators said students often don’t seek help until they’re desperate. A college support expert said she wants to see “students consider accessing help before it’s a crisis and they feel like it’s too late, and they are too far gone and might as well drop out.”   

Knowing which students do and don’t seek help is key to improving services and outreach, but most colleges lack that information. Eighty-three percent of respondents to our questions were unsure which students use campus resources, and 77 percent were unsure what prevents access. One program director told us, “I’m not aware that we have any processes to track other than pencil and paper sign-in.” But as we heard from an associate provost, even when data systems to track student help-seeking are in place, there is often “no central insight into usage of services.”  

Ohio University is having success leveraging data for outreach efforts. Suraiya Padiyath Abdulla, director of graduation plans and advising technology, said advisors get reports on students not enrolled in courses needed for graduation, for instance, “so we can help them proactively. Then we work with Persistence Plus on nudge(s).” Nudges texted to students who had not completed graduation plans increased opt-ins by 7 percent, part of an overall 5 percent increase in first-year retention. 

Culture matters

But this kind of outreach won’t work if a campus culture doesn’t encourage help-seeking. The best way to connect students to resources is not through marketing but through relationships. Many students are “social scholars” who prefer to tackle challenges with their peers. One educator suggests asking students to turn to each other in group sessions and share their favorite campus resource.

When students look to faculty and staff for help, challenges can arise. A community college success coach said, “Each department seems to know only about their own services,” adding that this siloing leads to compartmentalized help where students don’t get answers from the people who “have the most power to raise awareness.” 

It’s essential to streamline support services to fix this disconnect, said Marisa Vernon White, vice president of enrollment management and student services at Ohio’s Lorain County Community College. She said Lorain boils down student resources to two referral points, which in turn point students to other services. This makes it faster and simpler to help students in crisis.

Advice for educators

Here are three recommendations that came from our discussions: 

  1. Collect and centralize data on student resource use. If possible, attach data to individual student records so you can proactively offer help to students who are not using resources. 
  2. Use data to discover gaps in access. For example, are students of all races, sexes, and ages using a resource? If not, find out why. 
  3. Make help-seeking public and normal. Create physical spaces for students to meet and share help-seeking stories. Ensure faculty and staff know how to connect students to a wide range of resources. 

[Wendy Sedlak, Ph.D., is a strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn and train beyond high school. Sedlak synthesizes data to guide Lumina’s strategy, document effective practices, and measure progress. She partnered on this project with Ross O’Hara, Ph.D., director of behavioral science and education at Persistence Plus, which brings the idea of the nudge to higher education to increase retention and equity, and ease students’ paths to graduation. To date, Persistence Plus has supported hundreds of thousands of students through dozens of partnerships.] 

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