Providing Comprehensive Support Services to College Students: An Interview with SUCCESS Students and Coaches

Group of college students walking on campus

A growing body of research shows that comprehensive student support programs can increase graduation rates for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. But what do these programs look like on the ground? And what are the experiences of students participating in them?

In this episode, Leigh Parise talks with students and staff from Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana about SUCCESS, a student support program that offers personalized advising and financial incentives and emphasizes data-driven program management.

Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington is one of 13 colleges across five states participating in MDRC’s Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success (SUCCESS), which aims to increase degree completion through the implementation of comprehensive support programs based on strong evidence.

Leigh Parise: Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? Welcome to Evidence First, a podcast from MDRC that explores the best evidence available on how to improve the well-being of people in poverty. I’m your host, Leigh Parise.

The pandemic has rattled the postsecondary world, with colleges facing declining enrollment and students facing even greater barriers to graduation. Many people are left asking, what works to help students finish school? But we already know a lot about what works to support students on their path to completion. Drawing on more than 15 years of research evidence, MDRC developed Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success, or SUCCESS, which aims to increase graduation rates for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color. The SUCCESS model combines personalized coaching or advising, a focus on full-time enrollment, and financial incentives into a multi-faceted, three- or four-year program for students.

MDRC is partnering with 13 colleges across five states to implement SUCCESS programs. In this episode, we take a closer look at the SUCCESS program at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana, which is called I-SUCCEED. To learn more about what the program looks like on the ground, particularly the coaching provided to students, I talk with Dr. Cara Reader, former director of student success and retention and I-SUCCEED coordinator, and Kathy Morrison, a program coach. I’m later joined by three I-SUCCEED students—Amanda Maloney, Nathan Stonecipher, and Brittany Tritle—to hear about their experiences in the program.

Thanks for joining me, Cara and Kathy. A key component of the SUCCESS program at Ivy Tech is coaching, in which students meet frequently with their coaches to help them address a variety of personal and academic issues. How would you describe your role as a coach?

Cara Reader: I think, as a coach, we are the students’ go-to person in the higher education setting. A lot of our students are first generation college students, and they're entering this new world with new lingo and new rules, and we like to tell our students: you know, we're your person. If you are stuck on anything, come to us; we can help you. And so, we really try to get the student to learn how to do things on their own but, with our support and scaffolding, help them on the right path.

Kathy Morrison: And I think as coaches, we kind of look at them in a very holistic way. We can help them academically and how to do better in their classes. But we're also looking at things like: How was your holiday? What did you do to relieve some stress in your life? What other kinds of things are you doing to connect with people, especially in times when they're not on campus.

Leigh Parise: We’ll have a chance to hear from some students in the I-SUCCEED program a little later on in the episode, but it would be great to hear from the two of you if there are some specific examples that illustrated how you work with and support I-SUCCEED students.

Cara Reader: I think one thing as a coach that we often work with students on is the perspective that a lot of our students have immediate needs that they have to take care of: so paying for their rent, helping their children with their schooling. And a lot of times the long-term plan gets lost. And so, an example of this I have is with a student who wanted to be a nurse. She's a mom of two, and she was really struggling with should I go to nursing school or should I not? Because being in nursing school for two or three more years would mean she wasn't having an income to bring into her family.

And so, once we did the math and thought about all the things that she would be sacrificing, we saw that earning a degree in nursing would lead her to have a higher earning power and that she would quickly make up those two to three years of lost wages. And she was very upfront and said without that conversation, she probably would have just quit nursing school because the immediate need was right in her face. And that with our help at Ivy Tech, we could find connections to a food pantry or connections to the township trustees to help her with other stuff. Through our coaching and guidance, she was able to see, you know, this is the best decision is to stay in school because it has a lifetime impact.

I think one thing that Kathy and I have seen since the pandemic is that we are the one stable thing in our students’ lives. And that they tell us that every other week I know you'll always be there Tuesday at 3:00, and that you will always have the type of advice or guidance I need. And that with the pandemic, things just changed so rapidly. And, you know, students may not be on campus anymore, or their schedule looks different, or they're at home with their kids, and that we're the one constant thing that they can count on. And that students really seem to appreciate that—even if it is just saying, "Wow, your grades look really great. I'm proud of you." A lot of our students tell us they don't have anyone else saying that to them. And so it is like a family and that we get to know them really well, and they get to know us really well.

Leigh Parise: Are there students who you have trouble connecting with?

Kathy Morrison: Usually, there's some basis for that—sometimes it's hard when somebody is holding you accountable, and you didn't measure up to whatever that accountability was, it's hard to face that person. Students come right out and tell us that, that I didn't do what I was supposed to do, and now I'm afraid to sit down and say I didn't do it. But one thing that we always say upfront is: if you didn't meet your goal, it wasn't because you failed; it was just that we didn't pick the right strategies to reach that goal. So, it just means that we have to sit back down again and talk through what are some ways to accomplish that goal. But that's the part of the student deciding what to work on because it becomes important to them. And it's not us saying, "Here's what you need to do." And so, for the most part, we have really high percentages of students meeting their goals, for how often they meet with us.

Leigh Parise: And one key component of the program is the use of data to inform your work with students. Tell me more about that.

Cara Reader: I know one big thing as coordinator that I use is data. And, so, I'm always pulling reports to see what students  have a low midterm grade, or are there outstanding assignments, or did a professor raise a flag on any of our students that needs to be addressed. And I'm always using the information we have at Ivy Tech, and using data to make sure that our coaches are addressing needs that we can see in our different systems.

Leigh Parise: How do you see the I-SUCCEED program impacting the lives of students?

Cara Reader: I think the I-SUCCEED program is about addressing equity issues. And, so, when we are providing students with holistic coaching, where there's some people may see it as handholding or helicoptering, it's not doing things for them; it's teaching them how to get there and then to do it themselves. Like Kathy said, we're not going to do it for you, but we are going to help you and then hold you accountable. When we're thinking about our population of students that we serve, a lot of them are first generation college students or they live in poverty, or they have five or six kids they need to take care of.

And so, to me, that's an equity issue that we need to make sure everyone has access to higher education that can change their outcome in their lives. And I think Ivy Tech is really great with helping students obtain a degree that can change their lives.

I think that's one thing when people often do say, "Well, isn't that handholding?" I think it's helping people who need it. And it's not because they lack intelligence or the drive. It's just that it's a whole new world. I remember [when] I was a first-generation college student and hearing the word registrar and being like, "What in the world is that?" And, so, helping them decipher those terms and words that we use on a normal basis where they may not be able to say, "Hey, what are you talking about the registrar?" I think it's really making sure that our students have access to education in a way that's equitable and addresses their individual needs.

Leigh Parise: Right, that feels like it’s so important. What is one thing about SUCCESS or coaching that you think might surprise people?

Kathy Morrison: I think it might surprise people how much self-responsibility a young person can take. You know, a lot of people have stereotypes about whatever age group you might be talking about. But when you think about 18- to 21-year-olds actually taking responsibility for their own learning, for trying to do better in school, for trying to find scholarships to be financially responsible with going to school. That when you see that happen with a young person, you just know that they're getting the right tools, they're going to be okay, they're going to be able to reach their goals. And I thinkmany people who don't have contact with 18- to 20-year-olds would be surprised by that.

Cara Reader: I think one thing people will be surprised if they coached our students for a month or so would be—they would get to see how resilient our students are. A lot of our students have hard days in front of them, or live in very tough situations. And that a lot of times when we tell a student, "Okay, I need you to do A, B, and C," they'll come back and have done it all despite their circumstances.

Every day, I'm amazed by our students resiliency, and how much they go through with really good attitudes. Just every day, I'm taken aback by how hardworking and driven our students are. Every day I laugh and say, "Wow, I am the lucky one that gets to do this. It's such a privilege to be able to serve these people." And, so, I always joke that Ivy Tech is better than Disney, because we really seem to change people's lives, and have a positive impact in a way that's just indescribable. I feel like a lot of people would be shocked at some of the things our students face, but then that they overcome them.

And then seeing them to get close to graduation or seeing them on stage at graduation is just such a great feeling that, you know, we helped someone and they're often very upfront with: “I couldn't have done this without you.” Or their parents will come up to us and say, "Oh, my gosh, you're Cara, you're Kathy, you're the one that they've been talking about, and that they would have not done this without you. You know, think back to August when they were crying and wouldn't come in the building, but you were there, and you helped them." So, I think it's a great. My job is the best job in the world because I get to see these students be resilient and get to be a small part in that.

Leigh Parise: That's so fantastic. It sounds really rewarding and like you are lucky to get to work with your students, and that they are very lucky to have you in their lives as their coaches. That's so great, really. Thanks so much for joining the discussion; it’s been great to talk with you today.

I also got the opportunity to speak with three students participating in the I-SUCCEED program to learn more about their experience: Amanda, Brittany, and Nathan.

Amanda, when you first heard about the I-SUCCEED program, what was it that drew you to it or that made you interested in participating?

Amanda Maloney: Well, I was, you know, like 40-something, going back to college with my three kids and full-time job. I was a little nervous about it whether I could, would succeed and be successful and finish my degree. So, when I read about the I-SUCCEED program, I was like: that's exactly what I need. I need something to help me succeed and complete my degree at this stage of my life [laughs].

Leigh Parise: Can you tell us a little bit more what kinds of things you talk about when you meet with Kathy?

Amanda Maloney: Well, she always asks me how life is. You know, she just wants to know how I'm doing, and it's nice to have somebody to talk about with that, and knowing that I'm going to school. And then she'll ask me about my classes. And I've had a few times, few tough classes, you know, and I'll express my struggles with her. And she's always got good suggestions or places I could go to get extra help, or she's connected me with professors to help me with the class because I'm an online student. So, I've actually gotten a connection from her to go sit in on a class because it was so, so challenging for me, and that was really helpful.

There was a time I got an email towards the end of my first degree. It said, "You haven't met the requirements for this degree." And I'm thinking, "Yes, I did. I registered for all the right classes." And so, I contacted Dr. Reader, and she looked into it, and then my advisor for this particular program has gone through several of them. So, I've never seen the same one or had one, you know, the same advisor. Dr. Reader knew one of the advisors that's really good at her job and sent me to her, and I had to spend, you know, maybe 45 minutes in her office. But she was the right person and got it figured out for me. So, they got my degree straightened out. I didn't miss a class. It was just something with all the paperwork, and, you know, all that stuff. But it was really good that Dr. Reader was there to connect me with that person in order to clear that up in a short amount of time. So, I didn't have a lot of time left.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, it sounds like it was really good that she was there. Thanks so much for sharing that, Amanda. Brittany, tell me about your experience with I-SUCCEED program.

Brittany Tritle: I was at [University of Southern Indiana] to be a nursing major and I did a whole year there. And coming from a small high school, and then going to like a somewhat big school was not very good. They did not prepare me for college life very well. So, then I transferred to Ivy Tech. And I had a lot of anxiety, trying to figure out because I didn't do that bad at USI. I just needed help trying to figure out how I'm going to study. So, I was still a nursing major at the time, and I was trying to take the TEAS [Test of Essential Academic Skills] test to get into the program at Ivy Tech. And I did not know how to study for it.

I took it once [but] didn't do very well. And then I used my resources at Ivy Tech, and I came in contact with Dr. Reader. She talked to me and she told me some tips and tricks and everything and we worked together on like how to study for it, [and] studying for the TEAS test is very hard because you don't know what's going to be on it. You have to be very well-rounded in English and math and chemistry and science. Like I had astronomy questions on the TEAS test.

And then after I took it for the second time, I still didn't do very good. I was upset and I obviously went to Cara and she was there. She told me it's okay. And we kind of came up with a backup plan. I applied to the respiratory program. And I was like their top pick. I outranked everybody. I had the highest score. So, obviously, I was meant to do this. I was not meant to be a nurse.

Leigh Parise: Wow! That's so great. That’s really impressive, congrats! And when you talked about that, you said that you didn't know things when you got to this big school and that you didn't know how to study. Can you tell me more about the types of things Dr. Cara taught you?

Brittany Tritle: When I read textbooks, it's like all jumbled up. Like your professor at USI, they would just throw a PowerPoint up on the board and they would be talking the entire time. And like I'm trying to write notes, but I couldn't keep track of everything. I'm just like, "Okay, I missed that." And I am not the person that's going to raise my hand and ask them—"Can you repeat what you just said?"—with 100 people in a class. Like, that's just not what I'm going to do. I was falling behind, and I was missing things that the professor was saying.

So, Dr. Reader told me that I should record the lecture. And then I can go back if I miss things while I'm writing. And then I could write it down, and I wouldn't miss anything. And then I could listen to it over and over again. So, that's what I started doing at the beginning of the program, and it helped a lot.

Leigh Parise: And what were some pointers for reading the textbooks?

Brittany Tritle: Dr. Reader told me that highlight all the important stuff that you think that you're going to need, write questions at the beginning that you think are going to be on a test. I would kind of make my own little questions. And then, at the end of it, do the questions, try and fill out the answers. And so that way, you have your own little study guide when it comes time for your test. That really helped. And then it made me want to ask questions in class that I could take to my professor. So, that was really helpful. And she, my professor, was very willing, too; she had office hours all the time, and she really helped me understand things along with Dr. Reader.

Leigh Parise: That’s really good advice. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us today.

Finally we turn to Nathan. Nathan, how did you learn about the I-SUCCEED program at your campus?

Nathan Stonecipher: Well, in my first semester at Ivy Tech, I received an email suggesting that I join up for I-SUCCEED. I didn't really know anything about it, except it said that if I joined, I could get a $50 gift card every month and that was a great incentive.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, I see how that would be appealing. Did you have a sense for what it would be like when you got that email? Or did you just want to learn more?

Nathan Stonecipher: Well, as a returning student, I had a unique viewpoint. I had tried college before, and I didn't have a support structure or anybody to really help hold me accountable. And the I-SUCCEED program, the way it was introduced in the email, and then after discussing it in the first introductory meeting, I got the sense that it would be someone who could help me, who could help hold me accountable.

Leigh Parise: Great, thank you. Nathan, how would you describe your relationship with your coach?

Nathan Stonecipher: I will oftentimes call them my life coach. They are definitely a success coach. When I first started I-SUCCEED, I was very concerned about my lack of organization. Now Ivy Tech provides each student with a planner right off the bat, and I hadn't really touched it. I was still carrying it around with me. I just hadn't used it. When I sat down with Kathy Morrison, and we started talking, and I started really going into how much concern I had about my disorganization. She just kind of reminded me that I had it and then we sat down and set up the proper tools that I would need to continue using the planner and the organizer moving forward. And I can say right now I even have it with me, and I use it on a daily basis. It has helped keep me on task since that moment.

Leigh Parise: That’s great, and can you say a little bit about how you were feeling when you first were thinking about returning to school and when you first got back to campus after not being there for a while?

Nathan Stonecipher: I was absolutely nervous. It was such a foreign environment after being away from it for about seven years.

Leigh Parise: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What would you share with other students who might be interested in I-SUCCEED or in other success programs?

Nathan Stonecipher: The $50 gift card was a wonderful incentive to get me started. It was the meetings itself that keep me coming back. I-SUCCEED is a program that revolves around helping the students. It is all about making sure you have everything you need to be successful. Everyone has somebody who's keeping them accountable—parents, a friend, or just that inner monologue that wants them to succeed. I-SUCCEED is another voice helping out.

Leigh Parise: Great, thank you so much Nathan. And thanks so much to all the students—Amanda, Nathan, and Brittany—for sharing their stories. And to the coaches, Cara and Kathy, for joining the discussion.

To learn more about MDRC’s SUCCESS project and the participating states and colleges, visit

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About Evidence First

Policymakers talk about solutions, but which ones really work? MDRC’s Evidence First podcast features experts—program administrators, policymakers, and researchers—talking about the best evidence available on education and social programs that serve people with low incomes.

About Leigh Parise

Leigh PariseEvidence First host Leigh Parise plays a lead role in MDRC’s education-focused program-development efforts and conducts mixed-methods education research. More