How to Coach Students Without Trying to ‘Fix’ Them

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Following is a transcript of the conversation.

“Higher education is where we take the most financially supported students with the best academic preparation and place them in institutions with the most resources. And until we start to change that paradigm and think about, how do we redesign a system that is more equitable, how do we redesign a system that centers the voices of students who weren’t at the table when we originally designed the system, I think we’re going to continue to see inequitable outcomes.”
Alexandra Bernadotte

Goldie Blumenstyk: Welcome to Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. In this special series, we’ll be sharing the stories of change makers working to improve equity in higher education. Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk. And that voice you just heard is Alexandra Bernadotte, the CEO and founder of Beyond 12. Alex, thanks so much for joining us today.

Alexandra Bernadotte: Hi, Goldie. Thanks for having me.

Blumenstyk: So Beyond 12 is a student-success organization. I know there’s a lot of so-called student-success organizations out there in the world right now in higher ed. They’re all very vital and important, but where does Beyond 12 see itself in the sea, what’s its particular niche?

Bernadotte: Yeah, so we are a student-success organization. We are a technology-based nonprofit. And our mission is to significantly increase the number of students from under-resourced communities who earn their degrees and who translate their degrees into meaningful employment and choice-filled lives. So we focus specifically on students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. We operate at the intersection of K-12 and higher education, and we wanted to build an organization that reflects the joint responsibility between K-12 and higher education for student success.

Blumenstyk: And you do this with, as you said, it’s a tech-based thing. But obviously it doesn’t just count on tech, right? Tech doesn’t operate by itself?

Bernadotte: Exactly. We use a digital-coaching platform that combines three elements. So human coaches who work with students virtually for their first two years of college, a campus customized mobile app called MyCoach that uses evidence- based nudges to remind students of the activities, deadlines, and behaviors that lead to success. And the third piece is a backend analytics engine powered by machine learning that allows us to predict which students need help and when, and then prescribe the right type of support.

Blumenstyk: So I’m particularly interested in this coaching thing. I know we’re hearing a lot about coaching lately. We hear about executive coaches working in business and obviously increasingly coaches working in the higher-ed setting as well for students. I assume maybe for the president, too, but in this case, we’re talking about the students. But I’m not sure I understand what a coach does in higher ed for students as distinguished from an adviser. And from Beyond 12, how do you think about it? What’s the role of the coach, and what’s sort of the special sauce that they bring to this?

Bernadotte: Yeah, thank you for asking that question, because you’re right, there are so many terms that we can use for folks who guide and who advise students. And we chose the word coaching specifically. Our model is based on an executive-coaching model called “Co-Active Coaching,” and the foundation of co-active coaching is that you believe that your coachees are creative, resourceful, and whole. They’re not broken. They don’t need to be fixed. They have the answers from within. And what they need is just a guide, someone to ask them powerful questions and to help them navigate. And in the case of higher education, this complex system, the other part of our model is, we say, it’s near peer. So we hire recent college graduates who themselves were the first in their families to go to college. So they understand firsthand the challenges that students are facing on their road to earning a degree. And it’s through this kind of interaction of a near peer and somebody who’s there as a guide, that we believe that we can have impact.

Blumenstyk: What’s a question that a coach might ask the student that would be sort of different than, maybe, what an adviser might ask?

Bernadotte: Absolutely. And quite frankly, Goldie, this is the question that I think of myself, as a parent. I have a 9-year-old. So when he comes back from school, I’m like, “How was school?” And what I get is, “Fine,” right. As you can imagine.

So really homing in on, What did you learn at school today? Is there somebody that you interacted with? And so, really getting in. And if we take that same kind of paradigm to our coaches, really asking students: “So you went to class today,” for instance. “Was there something about the class in particular that you found helpful, or was there something that you found useful?” “And so you want to go to financial aid,” for instance, “and you’ve had the situation with your father losing his job. Do you have a good sense for what you’d like the outcome of that meeting to be? What are you specifically hoping to get from your financial-aid officer today when you go into the office?” So those kinds of questions that are homing in on something very specific rather than just a general question about how students are doing.

Blumenstyk: And are these coaches talking to students on their phones? Are they texting them? How do they connect?

Bernadotte: Yeah, all of the above. So it’s all happening virtually. They are texting. Texting is by far probably the most popular way that our coaches are communicating with students. But it’s happening via text, via phone, via video chat. Zoom obviously these days. So really virtually, sometimes through social media.

Blumenstyk: The stereotype is, well, young people today, they only like to text, they’re not going to ever pick up the phone, but what’s the age group of your students? I mean, you’re not just dealing with the traditional-age student, right?

Bernadotte: They tend to be, I guess we call them nontraditional, traditional students. So still students who are first time in college, some who are transitioning immediately after high school, some who have stopped out for a couple of years and have decided to go back. So that age group is 18 to 26.

Blumenstyk: You mentioned, obviously, you’re a tech-based company. You’ve been around for 10, 11 years right now, and technology has evolved a little bit over those years. How have you thought about how you use technology? How has that evolved for your organization?

Bernadotte: I have to tell you, Goldie, that when we first started doing this, one primary question that we got from folks is, Do you really think that you can build meaningful relationships virtually? I can tell you that we don’t get that question these days anymore. But in terms of the evolution of technology, I think you hear in higher education that we use predictive models and that we’ve built predictive models. We certainly have been doing that as well. And so we have models that allow us to predict whether a student is going to persist to the next semester. But one of the things that we’ve learned is that predictive only takes you so far. So we’ve also built a prescriptive model. The “so what” of that equation? So you see that a student is struggling. What do you do then? And so that’s probably the biggest piece that we’ve learned over the years, that you also have to think about the prescriptions. So what do you do for students?

And in our model in particular, we’re not using demographic characteristics that are stable, but we’re using attitudinal and behavioral characteristics to really help us think about, how do we help students that we identify who are struggling, how do we connect them to the right resources, and what are the particular kinds of messages that are going to be powerful for certain groups of students based on those attitudinal and behavioral characteristics?

Blumenstyk: And how do you get those characteristics? Do you have like a backend connection to the students’ financial records, for their academic records?

Bernadotte: It’s not. We don’t. We’re getting that information directly from students. And so it’s the coaches doing assessments with students to really think about growth mind-set or to ask them questions about, what kind of support do they have? What about their comfort with technology? So we’re getting it from our coaching because our coaches are interacting with students, and then we’re getting it directly from students through the app.

Blumenstyk: Just about a year ago today, Beyond 12, which is obviously a nonprofit organization, you acquired another organization. I think it was called GradGuru. So how does that change what you do?

Bernadotte: So the GradGuru app was doing the same thing as our app, which we call MyCoach, but they were hyper focused on community colleges and specifically community colleges in California. So for us, the acquisition has allowed us to really hone our expertise on serving community colleges. So now, because of the acquisition, we’re serving an additional 49,000 community-college students.

Blumenstyk: As I’m thinking about what you do, and actually what a lot of student-success organizations do, you all exist because something in the system isn’t working. Students aren’t getting where they need to be. I think some people might say, Well, the system is broken. But I recently heard you talk about this in a very different way. You don’t necessarily think the system is broken, right?

Bernadotte: Yeah, I don’t think that the system is broken. Systems achieve the outcomes they are designed to achieve. So higher education was designed to compound privilege. You know, if you think about it, higher education is where we take the most financially supported students with the best academic preparation and place them in institutions with the most resources. And until we start to change that paradigm and think about, how do we redesign a system that is more equitable, how do we redesign a system that centers the voices of students who weren’t at the table when we originally designed the system, I think we’re going to continue to see inequitable outcomes.

Blumenstyk: I’m always fascinated by the origin stories. You know, what inspires people to create organizations. Can you talk a little bit about how you yourself sort of experienced this when you were a college student?

Bernadotte: Absolutely. And Goldie, I’m often struck by the fact when I have these conversations that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would be sitting here talking to you today as a college graduate and advanced-degree recipient or as a social entrepreneur, because I am an immigrant. I was raised in inner-city Boston by my beloved late grandmother and my parents. English is my third language. I financed my education through federal programs like the Pell Grant and Work-Study, and I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college. I was motivated and I worked hard, definitely, and I have the support of an incredible village. But so much of my success depended on some very lucky breaks, like my parents finding an opportunity to leave our native Haiti during the Duvalier regime to move to the U.S. in search of better opportunities. Or my mom, and this is one of the ones that gets me, one day when I was in the seventh grade, my mom overheard a group of doctors at Carney Hospital, in Dorchester, Mass., where she worked as a blood technician, talking about where they were sending their kids to college. And that day, I remember she came running home and said, “OK, I got it. You have to go to this thing called an Ivy League, and you have to go to this place called Dartmouth.” And that’s how the dream of a specific college was born. It was through that overheard conversation by happenstance in the emergency room of Carney Hospital.

Another lucky break that I had was that I took a sociology class with professor Deborah King, who was a Black woman, and when she saw me in crisis after I bombed my freshman year, said, “Not on my watch,” and then made sure I had the support, tools, and resources that I needed to graduate. Graduating from college shouldn’t be about luck, but for so many students, then too many students, it is. And so I’m doing this work and Beyond 12 is in this game to remove luck from the equation for students with backgrounds and stories similar to mine.

Blumenstyk: What about your experiences along the way? You didn’t walk out of Dartmouth and say, “Oh, I’m going to found some student-success organization that’s going to use technology and combine it with coaching.” What were some of the key turning points along the way for you that made you think, because of this and this and this, I’m going to create this organization?

Bernadotte: It was much more messy than I’m going to describe it. And I have to say that because a lot of students often hear my story and their interpretation is that I had it figured out from the very beginning.

So that said, a couple of seminal moments and key moments in my journey that led me to create Beyond 12: One of them is that I used to work at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, for a small foundation within WHO. And we were helping students who were addicted to sniffing glue. So it was a part of the program on substance abuse. And we were working with prevention workers on the ground to really think about, How do we help them share best practices? How do we keep them from duplicating efforts? And at the time, I’m not going to date myself, but I am going to tell you that we built this very rudimentary, clunky website because this was in the very beginning of trying to think about the internet as a force to help address social challenges and social issues. So we built this very ugly, clunky site to connect these prevention workers together who were working all over Latin America. And for me, that was the first moment when I started thinking about technology as a method to help us really solve some of our most seemingly intractable social challenges. So that’s point one about technology.

The other important part of my journey is I was working as the executive director of the Princeton Review Silicon Valley office, and in that position I started working with lots of college-access organizations who were working to get kids into college. We were offering them free SAT-prep services. And that’s when it started to click for me. “Oh, wow. My own story is connected to the stories for so many students who are the first in their families to go to college. And what kind of support can we provide them to be able to navigate their journey?”

And then, Goldie, I would say the last thing that brings it all together, I went to Stanford for graduate school, and after graduate school, I was working at a venture philanthropy firm called New Schools Venture Fund. And New Schools was funding a lot of charter-management organizations at the time. And as a funder, we were saying to these organizations, We’re glad that you’re getting 99 percent of your students into college. What’s actually happening to them once they get there? And the answer, rightfully so, from so many organizations was, We don’t know. We’re not really sure, because the data trail, you know, for our students, usually ends at high-school graduation. And so for me, it’s probably those three key moments in my journey and in my career that led to the aha moment. Right. That there must be a way for us to solve this challenge by combining technology and the power of human support.

Blumenstyk: So it was more like an aha decade and a half than an aha moment?

Bernadotte: That’s exactly it, a decade-and-a-half aha.

Blumenstyk: And on that note, let’s take a moment now for a message from our sponsor.

Mike Belcher: Hi, I’m Mike Belcher, HP’s director of High Tech Innovation, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you here for just a couple of minutes about a topic that is important to us. And we think about our most displaced students, the most at-risk students. The pandemic has probably had a disproportionate effect on them. And honestly, what happens to those students if they end up dropping out right now, if they end up not continuing their education and moving forward? Do they put this on hold indefinitely? Do they eliminate their plans for higher education? What happens to their potential? How do we take into consideration the challenges that they’re faced with? The emotional and mental health? Food and shelter is a basic. And because if we don’t do this, it’s going to be so hard for those students to ever enter in this next economic boom, which we fully believe is going to be built around a whole different set of priorities that’s being built around STEM-connected opportunities, right. Where we’re going to see STEM integrate into almost all that we do. So ensuring that we reach those students is one of those key sort of priorities.

I think this opportunity that we have in front of us right now, particularly with this next set of stimulus dollars, we’re going to be looking at over $60 billion, with a majority of that aimed at those high-risk student populations and the disproportionate amount of funding, something like 75 to 80 percent of them will be aimed at Pell Grant student population base. So schools will receive this funding to help support those students. Here is our opportunity to make sure we’re hopefully doing the right thing. So a couple of things that we think are going to be important to look at as we go forward, particularly as we see this move from K-12 and from high school into college and the blend that needs to happen there. This funding is going to come disproportionately to community and tech colleges, to those public institutions that have high percentages of Pell Grant students, and so helping them understand where this growth is going to come. It’s going to come from Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies, things like artificial intelligence and machine learning with data science underlying that. It’s going to come in additive manufacturing and how it changes the ability for us to create products and parts, and really change the way that localized manufacturing occurs. It’s going to open up huge amounts of jobs within five to 10 million in the next decade.

So ensuring that we’re connecting those students into where those careers are going to be growing, what will be a huge opportunity for that population base. And if you’re struggling to find, how do I create a program, how do I apply for specific sets of funding? HP has set up a program through grants office at http://www.grantsoffice.com/HP, where if you’re looking to apply for some of these unique, innovative sort of approaches to how to support those students, it’s a great place to help you align the right stimulus funding that may be helpful for your institution. And that’s both K-12 and higher ed. So you can take advantage of that. And another area that HP has developed is called HP Life, and this is a not-for-profit. It’s a dot-org website really designed to provide curriculum for those high-school students into college and beyond, honestly, for adults who would love to learn more about starting their own business; they have a great idea, but they don’t know the process to go through. And so the curriculum inside of HP Life, which is free to everyone in multiple languages, kind of helps you through this process, takes you through the design-thinking process of, how would I take this idea and really make it come to life? How would I market it, how would I finance it, how would I operationalize it, communicate it, etc. And so it’s a really great set of tools. That’s www.life-Global.org, and we hope that you’ll be able to take advantage of some of those resources. Again, greatly appreciate this opportunity to speak with you. My email is Mike dot Belcher at HP dot com. If we can help any of you at any time, please reach out. Thank you.

Blumenstyk: Thanks for that. And we’re back. Hello again. This is Goldie Blumenstyk, here to continue the conversation with Alexandra Bernadotte, the founder and CEO of Beyond 12.

Trying to get a sense of how big is your program now: How many students are you serving? How many coaches do you have? How does it work?

Bernadotte: Yeah, absolutely. So we are serving 96,000 students across the country, and right now we have about 25 coaches. So of the 96,000 students that we are serving, about 2,500 of them are working with a virtual coach.

Blumenstyk: And how do you decide who gets a virtual coach and who gets a human coach?

Bernadotte: It’s working with our partners, quite frankly; some of our partners just want the data, and other partners say, we’d like your help, like we need your help to actually make the data make sense and to provide support. And so part of what we do is, we do take the data that we collect about how students are doing once they enter college, and we feed it back to our K-12 partners to help them make decisions about the efficacy of their college-readiness models and programs and hopefully to use the data and to embed it in their systems so that future generations of students that they’re sending on to college are better prepared.

Our aspiration is to be serving a million students annually by 2030, and to increase the number of students who are going to be actually able to work with a human coach.

Blumenstyk: So I actually heard you say that a few years ago, a million students by 2025. Have you had to adjust the thinking a little bit?

Bernadotte: I mean, a lot of what we’re seeing happening is the significant decline in enrollment that we’ve seen for the students that we’re serving. Right.

Blumenstyk: Current students?

Bernadotte: Yeah, current students that we’re serving and also the potential impact on future students that are coming through. But also we’re thinking about just the long game. And so we’ve adjusted it a little bit to say, OK, what do we think is possible and feasible and how do we increase the number of our partners, particularly our college partners, who we’re going to be able to impact? And so we’ve made the adjustment, but we are still there. That is still our North Star, and we’re pretty excited about the progress that we’re making to achieve that goal.

Blumenstyk: How do you know what you do right now even works? I mean, what’s the evidence for it? I always feel responsible to ask people to, you know, “show me the money.” Show me the evidence here.

Bernadotte: Thank you so much, Goldie. I’m so glad that you asked that question. So how do we know that it works? Ultimately, we hold ourselves accountable for student-graduation rates. That is the big piece by which we measure our success. And right now, 66 percent of the students that we have coached for two years and 85 percent of the students that we’ve coached for four years have either graduated or they are still enrolled by the end of their sixth year. And so that is versus 44 percent, the national average for similar students. And so that’s one of the big pieces for us, that we hold ourselves accountable for college-graduation rates.

Blumenstyk: I’ve spoken to a few other social entrepreneurs as part of the series. All of them, so far, have talked about the kinds of changes that they’ve had to make in response to the pandemic and also just maybe some of it just naturally coming along as evolution. But how has the pandemic specifically changed the way you operate?

Bernadotte: On the surface, we’ve always been a virtual model in terms of students. We’ve always been a technology platform. So in terms of our delivery, not much has changed. In fact, some of our students reflected about a year ago when we all had to shelter in place and when campuses closed, that the one constant in their lives has been their relationship with Beyond 12 and with their Beyond 12 coach, because that relationship has always been virtual. So that hasn’t necessarily changed.

What has changed is the challenges that our students are experiencing. So this year we ended up launching a student-relief fund because we were hearing from our students over and over again about the financial challenges that they were experiencing as a result of the very real need for us to shut down campuses. And so we actually fund raised on behalf of our partners and were able to administer these student-relief funds to be able to get cash into the hands of our students very quickly. And so being able to see that students were even more food insecure or more housing insecure, and feeling very compelled to try to figure out how to step in and help our partners support their students to address those challenges, that was a pretty big pivot for us.

And then the last thing is, because we are an organization that believes that our students — because they are in close proximity to the challenge — are best suited to devise the solutions, we hire folks who have similar backgrounds and experiences as our students. And so, as you know, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted our communities and communities of color. So some of the challenges is that our staff, they’ve experienced loss, the death of family members, and family members, unfortunately, who were ill. And so we’ve also had to adjust and find a way to support while we continue to do the work, but also find a way to support our team.

Blumenstyk: Right. I know that’s been a challenge at a lot of institutions as well. What do you see happening in the future? Are you thinking other kinds of partnerships, other kinds of, sort of, relationships beyond just building more partnerships with colleges?

Bernadotte: Yeah, I mean, there are two pieces of our strategy. We like to think about it as scaling and activating. So the first piece of our strategy is we do want to scale. We want to scale, particularly with community colleges. We know that this is a particularly challenging time for our community-college partners. And so we’d love to be able to work with as many as possible. We’d also love to be working with more HBCUs, historically black colleges, right, and to help them address some of the persistence and challenges that they are experiencing. So there is a big part of our strategy that is about scaling and as you mentioned, trying to reach a million students by 2030.

But the second part of our strategy, we’re calling “activate.” So we would love to be able to use our coaching platform to help activate some of the students with whom we’re working to reimagine higher education, to really deconstruct it and help all of us think about how do you build a new system, one that is specifically designed to center the voices of students. And so part of the things that we’re testing over the next couple of years: We’re working with human-centered design firm IDEO to launch a design challenge on select campuses. We’re also working to build advocacy into our coaching curriculum to help students think about, what does the system look like, how do I deconstruct it? How might I help build a new one? And then the third piece is, we’re going to be launching a student-design fellowship, a paid student advocacy design fellowship, where we identify students on particular campuses and provide them with that kind of training — paid — so that they can start to think about, how might higher education look differently?

Blumenstyk: So this goes back to this whole notion that the current system is working just fine at doing some of the wrong things, and the desire for a new one?

Bernadotte: Exactly. And we think that students have to be at the center of that, right. Every great social movement in our country has been led by students, and we believe that that should be the case for the movement for educational equity.

Blumenstyk: Great. Alex, it’s been so great to talk to you today. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Bernadotte: Goldie, thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun, and I appreciate you.

Blumenstyk: This has been Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. For additional episodes, look for us on the Chronicle website or your favorite podcast app. I’m Goldie Blumenstyk.

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