Supporting Success by Addressing Students’ Academic, Engagement, and Financial Needs

For many of the students I serve, a college degree means more than starting a career. A degree can mean upward social mobility for students and their families and communities. At Old Dominion University (ODU), we have made it our mission to serve many low-income, first-generation students, and we are proud of our work. Our student body includes almost eight thousand students who receive Pell Grants, the most of any Virginia institution (State Council of Higher Education for Virginia 2018). ODU Pell students personify determination and have an intense desire to succeed.

As one of the most diverse campuses in the United States, ODU is committed to educating students of all backgrounds and empowering them to complete their degrees. As our president, John R. Broderick, reflected, “We promise a diverse and welcoming community for learning, where we all benefit from the collegial exchanges of thoughts and perspectives” (2018).

Student affairs, student success, and enrollment professionals must be leaders in helping all students succeed at every point in the student life cycle. The student life cycle begins at the student’s first point of contact (well before the first day of classes) and continues through and beyond graduation, as shown in ODU’s student success continuum in Figure 1. Using this continuum, we work across campus offices and divisions to create an intersection of services that seamlessly support student success.

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To help provide these services, ODU pairs student affairs and enrollment management in its Student Engagement and Enrollment Services (SEES) division, where I serve as vice president. This pairing reduces silos and ensures strong partnerships to support students. An important phrase in our division is “assessment for relevance.” Using data, we learn about the student experience, the impact of our services, and areas where we can remove obstacles that impede student retention and progress. In SEES, we work with our colleagues across ODU divisions to support three student success factors: academics, student engagement, and financial needs.

Academics

Academics and student engagement overlap, as Edward, an engineering student of color from a low-income background, illustrates:

[There] weren’t many people of color pursuing engineering. . . . It was hard to develop relationships with professors and other students in the classrooms, which hurt my learning process. The thing that helped was . . . an [engineering] living-learning community [LLC] as well as the National Society of Black Engineers.

Academic and student affairs professionals can work together to support students like Edward and advance the institution’s academic mission. At ODU, our efforts to integrate social and academic aspects of education begin prior to the first day of classes. For example, the LLC student experience starts with an orientation and dinner hosted by the academic and student affairs teams. This collaboration continues as faculty and staff provide tutoring, networking, and support to students in the residence halls. In addition, career-focused experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom are often a highlight of students’ college experience. Recently our Engineering and Cybersecurity LLC students toured the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier, and our Engineering LLC students visited a local architectural and engineering firm for an alumni-hosted presentation.

Student Engagement

It is not only classroom performance that predicts success. Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, emphasizes that when faculty and staff make individual connections with first-generation, low-income students, they become much more likely to stay in school (2018). From student organizations to mentorship programs, there are countless ways we can support students’ connection to the institution and its faculty, staff, and students.

Brother 2 Brother (B2B) is a national organization that supports African American and Hispanic male college students by providing fellowship, economic empowerment, accountability, and support for student success. At ODU, B2B collaborates with several campus divisions. B2B cosponsors a Minority Male Symposium with ODU Athletics, and an Academic Achievement Recognition Awards ceremony for African American and Hispanic men with Academic Affairs. Within SEES, B2B supports and has collaborated with the Women’s Center, the Office of Leadership and Student Involvement, the Office of Intercultural Relations, and student organizations. Many members of B2B are from low-income backgrounds and/or are first-generation students.

Anthony, an African American junior, shared the impact of ODU’s B2B chapter on his college experience: 

I used to be shy [and] didn’t know how to network—but just talking with the group of guys in the general body meetings [and] seeing people becoming successful, I [thought], “If you surround yourself with people like that, then of course, the success will come.”

In addition, SEES staff members collaborate with ODU’s first lady, Kate Broderick, who leads the university’s Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), a group of female business and community leaders throughout the region. WIN connects these leaders and ODU alumnae as mentors to students, including many low-income and first-generation students. Broderick herself serves as a mentor. Amy, her mentee and a first-generation college student, said,

[Broderick] has inspired and motivated me to achieve in and outside of school. She helps me get through complicated situations I have encountered as a college student.

WIN leads outreach efforts, including Big Blue’s Closet, a collaboration with the College of Business and an ODU student organization. The closet houses gently used professional attire and accessories for men and women, which ODU staff and community members have donated. Students may select clothing for interviews and professional development events.

Financial Needs

For many ODU students, the ability to finance higher education is as important as academic ability in college persistence. Our Learn and Earn Advantage Program (LEAP)—an on-campus work program housed in Career Development Services in the SEES division—shows how financial aid and career services can work together to offer not only funding but also real-world skills. LEAP students are employed in offices and departments across campus in their early years, preparing them for paid internships, often in their field of study, in their junior and senior years. They also take a class where they learn employment skills and interact with alumni and other professionals through informational interviews. As Crystal, a LEAP student, shared,

Working on my resume in my LEAP program has made it possible for me to get a paid summer internship. LEAP has also helped enhance my communication skills.

ODU serves academically talented students who sometimes encounter unexpected financial hurdles. Bridge the Gap, founded by WIN, raises money to assist students in closing financial gaps that can prevent them from progressing with their education. In many cases, low-income students are one financial emergency away from dropping out. Also, students may need support beyond their financial aid packages to meet basic living needs or to participate in student conferences, study abroad, or internships in other cities. 

Addressing financial challenges is a critical component of student success. On my campus, our institutional research shows that if we can meet 64 percent of a student’s financial need, they are more likely to persist. Colleges and universities might consider how to revisit the design of their aid programs to leverage aid for retention (Godow 2015).

The Path to Student Success

Supporting students’ academic, engagement, and financial needs leads to productive alumni and a better-prepared, more innovative workforce. Student affairs, student success, and enrollment staff must partner with their academic colleagues to lead the way, helping students realize success to its fullest.

Paving the path to student success starts by reaching across divisional lines and connecting with colleagues to provide seamless service throughout the student life cycle. Promoting student success and college completion should be everyone’s job.

References

Broderick, John R. 2018. “State of the University.” August 22. https://www.odu.edu/stateoftheuniversity.

Godow, David. 2015. “Three Innovative Ways to Use Financial Aid to Promote Student Success.” Student Success Insights Blog, EAB, June 25. https://www.eab.com/blogs/student-success-insights/2015/06/financial-aid-as-tool-for-student-success.

Kruger, Kevin. 2018. “Access and Affordability in Higher Education.” Invited presentation for Social Mobility Symposium, Old Dominion University, June 18.

State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 2018. Pell Grant Report. http://research.schev.edu//fair/pell_dom_report.asp.


Ellen Neufeldt is Vice President of Student Engagement and Enrollment Services at Old Dominion University.

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