The future of higher education: world class student services in the 21st century

The future of higher education: world class student services in the 21st century
By Robert L. Martin, President, Imagine America Foundation

While one of the Imagine America Foundation’s (IAF) primary tasks for years was our scholarships programs, we’ve realized we have a great deal more responsibility than awarding scholarship funds. We realized that we have a larger responsibility. That responsibility goes beyond providing scholarship funds to students – involves supporting throughout their educational experience – ALL the way through to obtaining a job. We call this our 21st Century Student Services Initiative, which is a multi-tiered approach that helps students deal with challenges outside the classroom and allows us to address other, “non-academic” retention issues that in the past have caused students to fail. The process still begins with our scholarship award, but offers additional support such as guidance to improve study skills, staying on top of their finances (including their student loans), managing work and home, all the way through to our soon-to-be-launched employment portal.

Far too frequently today, too many good, smart people are finding out that they have dug themselves into impossible holes.  Students are simply overlooking some basic concepts: how to budget your expenses, how much to borrow, and the repayment options.  So, what exactly can we provide to our students to help them?

We developed a survey that paid particular attention to the financial aid process and asked general questions about the students’ knowledge of financial aid. We made some interesting findings about what they knew – or in most cases, didn’t know – about one of the most important borrowing situations they are going to experience in their lives.

About 32% of respondents to our survey said their knowledge of financial aid was barely acceptable. Only 11.9% claimed their knowledge was “very good.”  On the subject of how students found out about financial aid, 58% of respondents said they learned about their options from a college representative. These numbers showed to us that student borrowers could benefit from additional financial literacy tools. This survey also told us a great deal about the success of our Financial Planning Made Simple (FPMS) tool.  To date over 7,000 students have completed our FPMS video tutorial.

The online-based tool consists of an 18-minute animated video tutorial with the student’s choice of two avatars to walk them through the budgeting, borrowing and repayment process. The avatars are shown calculating their budgets by displaying the amount and location of their spending. Students can follow along and learn about different terms by clicking on words linking them to further information regarding consolidation, forbearance, deferment and default.

Second, technology does, in fact, play a role in the Foundation’s plans for the future of student services. While visiting and speaking to colleges that participate in the Imagine America Scholarship and Award Programs, we found one of the main reasons students drop with in the first couple of weeks is due to lack of motivation to succeed.  Students who are not prepared for college lose motivation and eventually may just give up.

To help our colleges and these students, we joined forces with Pearson Learning to provide a website dedicated to student success.  We want to keep these students motivated to succeed.  The tips will focus on four basic categories – Life Balance, Study Skills, Finance, and Professionalism.

Under these categories will have specific tips, for example under “Study Skills” tips will include:
•    Listening And Taking Notes In Class
•    Test Taking Skills
•    Learning Preferences

Under the “Life Balance” category tips will include:
•    Goal Setting
•    Time Management
•    Stress Management

As students apply for an Imagine America scholarship or award they will receive emails with tips to keep them motivated to succeed.  Through the email they will be able to click a link that will take them to the website where they can find additional information on the tips.  Additionally there will be activities, assessments and other interactive tools to keep the students motivated.

The FPMS tool is not the only web-based tool we’re developing.  I don’t want to give away too many details because the project is still in development, but we are currently working on an “employment portal.” The Foundation will be involved in helping students prepare their resumes and cover letters, as well as prepare for interviews. Our target date for the completion of the portal is June 2012. We’re tremendously excited to take our level of services to the next level and help students secure a job in a related field.

IAF’s roadmap to creating a 21st century student services initiative includes: staying in constant contact with our students, teaching them about financial literacy and money management, and finally providing students support through tips and eventually employment.

The future, as we see it at the Imagine America Foundation, is an exciting one. We believe our 21st century student services initiative will provide students with more confidence, better abilities to succeed in the classroom and with their finances, and the support they need to find their dream – a job in their field of choice. Our role in the future goes well beyond keeping students in class. We have a responsibility to our students through to better lives.  

For information about the Foundation’s 21st Century Student Services initiative, please contact Bob Martin, president of the Imagine America Foundation at (202) 336-6758 or bobm@imagine-america.org.