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Education Empowered Podcast: Belonging is Key to Student Success

By Rachel Greenfield February 28, 2020

Education Empowered Podcast - Promise Scholars Program
In Season 3 of the Education Empowered podcast, we dive into the five key trends from the Connected Student Report, a global survey of more than 1,000 students and staff that explores how the student experience can be enhanced across the entire lifecycle.

Listen in to hear from Lauren Ford, Project Director for the Promise Scholars Program at the San Mateo County Community College District. She spoke with VP Jason Belland about the district’s Promise Scholars Program, which is more than just a scholarship program providing financial support for first-time students. It’s a full-fledged support program that provides counseling, guidance, and financial resources to students to help them succeed from recruitment through graduation and beyond.

Jason and Lauren take a close look at one of the key themes from the Connected Student Report: belonging is key to student success. Of the students surveyed for the report, 75% said a feeling of belonging strongly influenced their decision to enroll at an institution.

“We all know that belonging is key to student success,” Jason begins, “but the question is, how do we foster that feeling of community throughout a student’s entire lifecycle? How do we connect them with other students and make them feel like their institution is truly their home away from home?”

Photo of students

Demystifying college for first-time students

With such a diverse student population, Lauren and her team place a high emphasis on ensuring their students feel heard, valued, and that they have space to grow.

“Whether it’s having materials in different languages, making sure our student ambassadors are as diverse as our student population, or that the website is reflective of student needs, those efforts make a difference,” Lauren says. “Those are just as important as ensuring that the physical campus reflects the same sense of belonging. So you don’t feel completely lost, but instead you’re seen as a valued member of that community.”

To foster that sense of belonging and to demystify what it means to be a college student, the San Mateo County Community College District offers college classes at district high schools as well as on campus.

“We want to affirm that yes, you can do this. College is not an ivory tower up on a hill. It’s a place for you to learn, to discuss, to contribute your own knowledge. So when students get that experience in their own schools—a place where they already feel pretty safe—it really does demystify it,” Lauren says.

Through this process, as well as through their use of Salesforce, Lauren and her team are able to collect data that enables them to continue to engage with those high school students in a personalized, hands-on way.

They inform high school seniors of opportunities to visit campus, meet professors, and ensure their financial aid is in place. “It’s really hands-on support for students,” Lauren says.

Photo of a student and an advisor

Holistic support and early intervention

In addition to helping students feel welcome and confident at their institution, the Promise Scholars Program taps into Salesforce data to provide holistic support and early intervention. They combine the use of analytics with in-person counselors or retention specialists to offer a positive, strengths-based approach the moment a student shows signs that they may be falling behind.

Even more interesting, as they collect data through Salesforce, they can tailor messages and even modes of communication to each student’s preference.

“It’s been really helpful to have these different modes and methods to communicate with students and prospective students, and to meet them where they are based on their preferences and their availability,” Lauren says. This technique enables the district to ensure students feel engaged prior to enrollment through their college experience and as they connect with their peers.

“I love that you’re using the technology to actually make things more human,” Jason says. “You’re empowering staff to have more holistic conversations with students using the right channel at the right time—sometimes it’s email, sometimes it’s text, sometimes it’s using the telephone. Sometimes hearing a voice is what someone needs at a certain time.”

Staff and students from the San Mateo County Community College District

What’s next for the Promise Scholars Program?

Because San Mateo’s Promise Scholars Program has been such a successful, comprehensive approach to the student experience, they’re collaborating with all California community colleges to expand their model across the state.

“We’ve received a grant from the state—a higher education innovation award—to replicate this model because it has done well within our district. We’re seeing increases in our two-year and three-year graduation rates, and it shows up in success metrics, so we’re supporting other colleges in California with this model,” Lauren says.

While they currently serve around 2,000 students district wide, they aim to serve 5,000 by raising funds in a sustainable way.

“I’m excited to be a part of this district as we rethink and reimagine what higher education can look like, and how we’re able to be culturally relevant and sustainable for our student population,” Lauren says. “We put the community in community college.”