News: College Access & Success

How the McNair Educational Foundation Uses Coaches, Texting to Help Students Succeed in College

Monday, October 15, 2018  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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NCAN, with the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, is supporting 12 members as they begin or expand postsecondary success services for students. Using results from the Benchmarking Project, NCAN identified programs providing success services that have achieved positive postsecondary outcomes for students. In this blog series, we will profile some of these programs and hear from them about their approach, their advice, and lessons other member programs can learn. Today, we profile The Robert and Janice McNair Educational FoundationSee the previous entry on The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

The Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation (“the foundation”) works with students in Rutherford County Schools in a rural, low-income county in the foothills of North Carolina. The foundation provides a wide array of college and career awareness and readiness programs for students at the elementary, middle, and traditional public high schools and a college completion program for graduates of these schools.

This college completion program, “GPS 4 Success,” gives college students access to a postsecondary success coordinator who works with them to perform a variety of tasks. (GPS stands for Go. Persist. Succeed.) These include mapping course pathways, course registration, connecting to on-campus resources, completing the FAFSA, assisting with financial aid issues, completing transfers, and navigating any other barriers to college completion that arise. The coordinator targets community college students because the foundation’s data indicate they are most at risk of not completing. The coordinator also works closely with college and career program staff to identify students who need intervention.

The foundation connects with students via a text messaging system and in-person meetings. The text messaging system is critical because it helps the foundation communicate with students in their preferred medium.

For 26 years, the foundation focused on access to college and increasing postsecondary enrollment. In 2014 and 2015, after receiving its first six-year graduation data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the staff realized that while they were doing a good job of getting students to college, the completion rates needed improvement. Working with an evaluator and its board of trustees, the foundation designed a research project to identify the services that would be most effective in increasing college completion rates. The foundation implemented this project, which is now in its second year, with a treatment group from the Class of 2016. Although the foundation is monitoring persistence data, it will not have full data until 2022.

I contacted the McNair Foundation’s executive director, Monica Lee, to get her thoughts about other aspects of the program. What follows is a transcript lightly edited for length and clarity with her responses and insights.

What are the challenges you experience (or experienced) in getting this work off the ground?

The main challenge in this work is getting to the students. In high school, they are a captive audience. In college, you only get them if they want to be involved. It is important to establish a relationship with students while they are in high school so they know who to come to when they need help in college. Even if students don’t sign up initially for the program, when they hit a roadblock, they will come back to the person they know. If that isn’t our staff person, then it’s a teacher or counselor who knows to send them to our staff person. We also use our text messaging system and send out mass texts to all students, not just the ones actively involved. That way, when those students hit challenges they know we are here to help even if they haven’t been involved in the proactive services.

Initially, we planned several interventions and services with students that we felt would be beneficial, such as a seminar prior to their first semester, regular in-person meetings, etc. We quickly found that college students aren’t going to attend these types of things. What these students need is simply a navigation coach – someone who can help them navigate the complicated system that is college.

A good relationship with the high schools and the postsecondary institutions is critical. The high school staff help build the relationship with the students prior to college. The postsecondary staff answer questions, help overcome barriers, provide information, etc. that can be necessary for the student to complete college.

Which aspects of what you do are replicated from other programs, and which aspects would be replicable for other programs? 

Everything we have done is replicable for other programs. We have replicated it for a new class of students. We have intentionally set up the program and interventions so we could share our results with others with the purpose of scaling and replicating the program.

What are the key indicators you track for your success services? Which of NCAN’s Success Common Measures do you track?

We are currently tracking year-to-year student persistence and the percentage of students completing a degree within 150 percent of time, by school type, through the National Student Clearinghouse StudentTracker. We are also tracking any type of postsecondary completion – from certification to bachelor’s degrees. We also have the following core demographic data from the Common Measures: first-generation, race, gender. We can also track FAFSA completion.

  1. What are the challenges around tracking them?

    NSC is now only reporting persistence data two years in so it is difficult to get an early idea of success. The demographic data is self-report, which can be challenging to obtain from students who are less active in the program.   

  2. What do you wish you could track that either you cannot procure or that presents a bad cost/benefit for obtaining?

We do not have access to financial aid information other than student report. This may be helpful in identifying some of the barriers to success. 

What are some of the key resources or supports you think the field needs to expand and improve the success services provided to students? i.e., What can NCAN do at a large scale in terms of professional development and training?

This is a developing field. The only presentations I have seen on this have been organizations early in their work in this area. There needs to be more conversation among those trying to establish programs in this area to share successes and lessons learned. I would love to have a small “spring training” type meeting with those organizations to hear what people are doing. As the field develops, sessions at the national conference specific to replicable interventions will be important.  

How do you balance the demand to provide more access support with the desire to provide more success support? How does that cause organizational shifts in, for example, securing funding, board commitments, and staff training?

Our access programs are completely entrenched in our schools and our organization. Our challenge will be expanding the funding for scaling this program to make the most impact. So far our board sees this as a return on investment; we are investing in access, but the return is in the completion. Without the completion, we have lost our initial investment. Our ultimate goal is to show positive results through our research project to justify scaling our program to serve more students and provide the higher return on investment.

How do you cooperate with colleges in supporting students?

We have a very strong relationship with our community college. I approached them prior to starting our success program, discussed the data, our plans, and our desire to collaborate with them to improve student success. They have been very open to our staff person, providing office space, information, resources, etc. We are very clear that we are not trying to replace anything they offer. Our job is to help students connect to things that are already in place on the campus and to provide assistance in navigating any barriers. They recognize this as a win-win opportunity for them. We provide the resources that will only make their completion rates increase.

For our four-year campuses, we are slowly building a network at the institutions most often attended by our students. We identify a key person – usually in admissions – that can be our contact for information and can connect us to other campus departments or resources. Our staff member also becomes very familiar with the resources available on each institution’s website.

How do you provide services to students who attend schools far away from your program’s location? What advice do you have for other programs in serving their own students at a distance?

We do much of this work, even for students at our local community college, through text messaging and other virtual communication. This works for students no matter where they are. For any in-person needs, we utilize school breaks to meet with students while they are home. Again, a good text messaging platform will be critical to this work. There are several available, but we are currently using GradSnapp, which provides a total platform for not only text messaging, but also the ability to store important information, set alerts and notes for both the student and the staff, and student access so it becomes an important communication tool between the student and staff.


Thank you to Monica for her time and responses and to the McNair Foundation for its NCAN membership. We will return soon with additional profiles of programs succeeding with college success.