Coaching as a Retention Strategy

Many higher education leaders are familiar with Tinto’s theories on student departure and student integration and Astin’s theory of student involvement. Fewer are familiar with Seidman’s retention formula. Even fewer apply the primary concepts of any of these models to their student retention initiatives. The concept of coaching as a student retention strategy relies heavily on Seidman’s retention formula.  Seidman stated, “For intervention programs and services to be successful, they must be powerful enough to effect change”.  Retention equals early identification plus early, intensive, and continuous intervention.The formula can be expressed as RET=E ID + (E + IN + C) IV).

In the model, early identification means students who are at risk academically and socially are identified at the earliest possible time. Institutional strategies and services to encourage student retention are intensive (thorough and rigorous). And intervention occurs continuously throughout the student life cycle. The student life cycle begins with admissions and ends with alumni services. Throughout the student’s enrollment period, coaches work with students to revise expectations and goals, and to identify obstacles and establish plans for successful achievement of their goals.

A majority of institutions rely on a loosely constructed student advising system. In many cases advising only focuses on course selection, change of majors, and related academic advising processes. Although well-intentioned, these services do not provide the type of intensive engagement with students that promotes student retention. At College Matters, we recommend coaching as a student retention model. Whatever the program design, the central theory is life coaching for student success. Life coaching is an intensive, synergistic relationship that empowers individuals to establish goals, develop plans for achieving those goals and strategies for overcoming obstacles that could hinder their success.

Most people are familiar with the concept of coaching in sports. Many are familiar with life coaching. There are significant similarities between life coaching and coaching for student success. In both situations, the coach inspires, instructs, and encourages the person being coached to achieve his/her personal best. The relationship is built on trust and the coach’s ability to draw out the best in others. The coach encourages the other person to overcome negative self-images and limiting beliefs, set goals, and establish strategies to reach those goals. All of this is done in the context of the college experience.

The coach works with the student to establish performance expectations the student agrees to work toward. Together they develop benchmarks for measuring progress toward the goals. Periodic check-ins allow the pair to make adjustments in the expectations and benchmarks and set corrective courses to continue making progress toward the goals. At some regularly scheduled time (typically mid-semester) the progress toward the goals is assessed, the quality of that progress is evaluated, and the cycle begins again.

Coaching in the sporting and business world is an established methodology for improving performance for individuals. The benefits of coaching are gaining an increased respect for coaching as a management model in corporations around the world. Meanwhile, student services efforts on college campuses continue to produce low student retention, while concerns about academic outcomes continue to rise. When the coaching techniques that are producing notable results for individuals in other settings are used with students, students can achieve their goals more effectively.

Creating a culture where staff and faculty can coach students through obstacles (external hindrances) and barriers (internal hindrances) can begin with institutionalizing performance coaching as the human resources model. As employees experience the benefits of coaching, it becomes easier to implement the process of clarifying expectations and holding others accountable to meet the expectations and to give their personal best.

When we apply the coaching model in the academic arena, the potential for student success (as measured by improved learning, increased retention and completion rates, and increased student satisfaction) is similar to the increased productivity, decreased turnover, and improved satisfaction being experienced in corporations where coaching has been incorporated.

Here’s what coaching might look like in the different encounters students have within an institution:

Recruitment & Admissions

During the initial introduction to the institution (the admissions process), the trust relationship begins. Admissions meetings are the place where the institution articulates and clarifies two sets of expectations: (1) what the student can expect from the college/university and (2) what the institution expects from the student in terms of commitment, motivation, and engagement. Generally, colleges focus more attention on the first set of expectations and do not outline what is expected of students in return. The result is often passive involvement by a student motivated more by doing what’s next than in doing what’s really important. In the coaching model, expectations are clearly outlined at the onset of the relationship. Performance goals are set. Standards of measurement are agreed upon. Knowing and agreeing to what’s expected increases the student’s commitment to program completion.


Broadly defined in the coaching model, student advising encompasses the financial aid, registration, and academic advising processes as well as academics and career services. In each functional area, the trust relationship is reinforced when expectations are clearly outlined and when students (and the institution) are held accountable to deliver based on the expectations that were set in the admissions process and initial encounters with academic advisors. For example, in the financial aid and enrollment process deadlines for submitting forms and information and registration deadlines are clearly outlined for students. Beyond that, students are coached to identify barriers to successful completion of these initial enrollment and campus engagement steps. Strategies for overcoming these barriers are then developed and implemented throughout the process.

During the initial academic advising meeting, advisors and students establish a plan of action for completing the student’s degree program. The plan includes scheduling classes and a commitment by the student to seek additional guidance if obstacles arise. The discussion also exposes student concerns about completing their courses.  This allows them to establish strategies for overcoming those concerns. Throughout the student’s program, the advising relationship serves as the primary coaching relationship where the student is encouraged to confront obstacles and to work with the advisor to establish strategies to overcome them.


As an effective intervention for academic success, coaching by faculty can encourage students to acknowledge when they are struggling academically. Working with faculty, students create strategies to persist with their coursework. Faculty has also has the role of identifying students at risk early and referring them to their success coach.

Career Services

Career services coaching also begins in the early months of the student’s college experience. The career services coach works with the student to establish career goals and realistic expectations about the career field, job opportunities, and workplace expectations. The career services coach identifies student concerns and helps the student develop a professional development plan that includes training outside of the coursework that might be required to ensure the student is adequately prepared to enter the workforce.


Coaching as a student retention model is an effective method for improving student retention.  It provides students with a process for setting and meeting goals in a culture of accountability. A survey of students involved in coaching as a student services model showed that 81% of the students knew their coach’s name within the first two weeks of the college initiating the strategy. Seventy-one percent (71%) found their first coaching session helpful, and 67% wanted to see their coaches more often.

If your institution is not getting the retention results you want, we would be happy to assist you in designing and implementing a customized coaching program that is suited to your institution’s culture and student population. We begin by identifying and assessing current practices aimed at student retention. We introduce the concept of coaching to key stakeholders. And we guide the institution in developing a customized model.  We also provide training in coaching methods to selected personnel.