Support services for college students are more than a nice benefit – they’re essential. Resources such as academic advising, financial aid services, and mental health counseling can mean the difference between stopping out and graduating.

Though colleges often say they offer all the resources students need to be successful, many students are unaware of these services, don’t realize that they need them, or don’t know how to access them.

Researchers at Tyton Partners decided to take a closer look at this disconnect. The result was the Driving Toward a Degree research series. For six years, they have monitored academic advising and student at two- and four-year institutions, measuring what practices, policies, and technology best help students of color and students with financial need. Statistics clearly show gaps in academic performance for these students who face longstanding roadblocks.

Three key findings from the study highlight areas that hinder the effectiveness of student support services:

  1. Low student engagement with support resources emerged as a significant obstacle. Surprisingly, over 35 percent of student survey respondents were unaware of available critical support services.
  2. Students who are aware of more support services report higher rates of feeling like they belong at their college or university. Students also want and need advisors who represent their own lived experiences, highlighting the need for diversity in support providers.
  3. Academic advisors, mental health counselors, financial aid administrators, and career counselors report limited coordination. This lack of systems integration hinders coordinated, holistic advising when providers lack access to shared data.

Other research confirms that all-inclusive support services are essential. Having an advisor who can help with academics, finances, mental health issues, career opportunities, or day-to-day support such as childcare or transportation can be a game-changer for students.

Here are a few things colleges can do:

  • Colleges should meet students where they are to raise awareness of student services. Many strategies that colleges use to recruit students can be used to connect those same students to campus supports, such as direct-to-student messaging or peer mentors.
  • Colleges can bolster a sense of belonging for students who may have difficulty making friends, building positive relationships, and simply navigating a new environment. These challenges can make students feel like they don’t belong at college. Connecting students with wide-ranging supports can quickly let students know they are not alone. Additionally, having a diverse set of advisors – and keeping them in their jobs with manageable workloads – is critical to increasing students’ comfort levels.
  • Colleges can create holistic care and support for students. When done well, such as in the case of Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), graduation rates soar, as they did by at three Ohio community colleges.

With these insights, we can make progress. To effectively implement comprehensive support services, colleges must prioritize advisors, coordinate across departments, and make sure that students know where and how to get help. With time, resources, and a wide variety and diversity of student supports, colleges can ensure that learners start strong, make steady progress, and graduate to better, more fulfilled lives.

[Wendy Sedlak, Ph.D., is strategy director for research and evaluation at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation that helps all Americans keep learning beyond high school. Sedlak synthesizes data and evidence to guide Lumina’s strategy, documents effective practices, and measures progress. For this study, she worked with Tyton Partners, advisors who are dedicated to the rapidly evolving Global Knowledge Sector. Read a recent Tyton study on digital learning here.]

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