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June 5, 2023

Building a Constructive Web of Support for New and Returning College Students: Key Takeaways from the Webinar

Higher education is more than just an intellectual journey – it's a transformative experience. Ensuring a smooth transition from high school to college is crucial for students' academic success. This was the core subject of Pear Deck Tutor's (formerly TutorMe) webinar, Building a Constructive Web of Support for New and Returning College Students.

Mackey Pendergrast, GoGuardian’s subject matter expert for superintendents and a former superintendent himself, shared his insights and research into how colleges can create a web of support to meet the needs of their students and increase retention and graduation rates. 

Drawing from his extensive experience in the field, Pendergrast led an insightful conversation into this topic about how technology can be leveraged to build this supportive web. 

In case you missed the webinar or don’t have time to watch the whole thing, we've captured his insights here in five key takeaways. 

Key takeaway #1: The solvability of higher education success

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse in 2014 on high school graduates from the Morris School District in New Jersey showed a concerning 20% gap in college retention between white and black students 16 months after graduation. 

As superintendent of this district, Pendergrast focused on how it could create a support structure that would decrease this college retention gap and help every student succeed in higher education. With his team, Pendergrast surveyed students and consulted with colleges for their feedback.

One key piece of information they received was ensuring graduating students had the skills they needed in math, reading, and writing to be successful in college-level courses. To prioritize this feedback, his district focused on making sure students were accessing grade-level content, especially in writing, during their junior and senior year. They also focused on increasing student skills in self-efficacy, metacognition, and connecting students to empowering relationships.

Pendergrast shared that by focusing on enhancing students' math, reading, and writing skills, and by building self-efficacy competencies and metacognition skills, this gap can be bridged. 

The proof? After building a web of support to address these key areas at the high school level, data collected in 2018 showed an almost equivalent retention rate between the same demographic groups. Pendergrast asserted college retention and success is a fixable problem – when incorporating this constructive web of support to address key skill areas. 

Key takeaway #2: Understanding students' needs

In 2013, research conducted by Ruffalo Noel Levitz and RNL revealed college freshmen require support in several key areas:

  • 75% need instruction for college exams
  • 58% need help to improve study habits
  • 48% need assistance with math skills
  • 44% require tutoring in one or more courses
  • 29% need training to improve reading skills. 

Notably, this data comes from self-reported surveys completed by students, where learners communicated what they needed in order to be successful in college. It is also important to note this data is pre-Covid. The pandemic has only served to heighten these needs and widen the skill gap.

Key takeaway #3: The changing demographics of higher education

In Nathan D. Grawe’s 2021 book, The Agile College, Grawe highlights that the composition of the future student body is undergoing a transformation. As new student groups emerge, they bring with them unique needs, necessitating campuses to devise innovative ways to support student success. Despite these challenges, Grawe believes schools constructively engaging with the changing environment can emerge stronger.

Impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on higher education is captured in a 2023 report from The Hechinger Report. According to the report, although four out of five students who begin at a community college intend to earn a bachelor's degree, only about one in six manage to do so. This represents a nearly 15% decline since 2021. This data shows students have the intent to finish college, but are being blocked from doing so.

Demographics are also changing and evolving into a more diverse student body. In an article from The 74, Janet Spriggs, the president of Forsyth Technical Community College, succinctly put, “They are 16 years old and they’re 73 years old and they’re everything in between. They are working parents, single mothers, and they’re facing all kinds of life circumstances that most people don’t recognize.” This demographic transformation underscores the need for flexible, accessible resources that can adapt to the varied needs of today's diverse student body.

Key takeaway #4: Building an “anti-fragile” system

The focus should be on improving systems, not 'fixing' students. Building a supportive network for new and returning college students is key to this. To understand the need for this supportive network, Pendergrast summarize the challenges college students are faced with as they enter or return to college: 

  • Many returning for the first time since 2020 COVID Shutdown
  • Some returning students are “SCNC – Some College, No Credentials”
  • Stop Outs – started, stopped, and are now returning to secure a degree
  • 29% 1st Generation to go to college
  • 15% single parents
  • Housing and food insecurities
  • Working parents
  • Recent high school graduates who’ve been impacted by two years of disrupted learning

Traditional academic support, such as office hours and in-person tutoring, may not be sufficient. Many students are working or cannot access these. How can academic support be aligned to meet their diverse needs? 

Key takeaway #5: Designing a constructive web of support for new and returning college students 

Begin by investing in Social Capital. This comes from Julia Freeland Fisher’s book, Who You Know, where she defines social capital as “students' access to and ability to mobilize human connections that might help them further their potential and their goals, as those goals emerge and inevitably shift over time.” Her research goes on to assert that even the best instruction strategies may fall short without frequent and ongoing access to academic resources. 

Responding effectively to the needs of contemporary students requires innovative solutions. Institutions must implement strategies that do not strain their resources while still providing quality support. One key strategy lies in accessible on-demand high-quality tutoring and asynchronous writing support.

Pear Deck Tutor steps into this space with a research-based model designed to meet the needs of both new and returning college students. This approach not only supports students academically, but also addresses the increasing need for flexible learning options by providing access to tutoring 24/7. The model enables students to access support when and where they need it, crucial for the large percentage of students who balance studies with work, familial obligations, or other responsibilities.

Pear Deck Tutor's emphasis on 1:1 attention in tutoring aligns with research indicating personalized tutoring, focused on a student's specific needs at a given moment, aids in progressing their learning journey. Tutoring sessions are not just moral support; they are robust, academic engagements led by dedicated tutors. 

The Pear Deck Tutor model also includes an asynchronous writing lab, which acknowledges the need for consistent and sustained improvement in writing skills. With this tool, students can access the support they need to develop writing skills over time, recognizing proficiency in writing is not achieved in a single session.

The effectiveness of Pear Deck Tutor's approach is anchored in the RAISE method, a research-backed approach to online tutoring that emphasizes the modeling-scaffolding-fading process of learning and delivers process-oriented feedback. This is critical for students coming into college with a wide background of experience and skills. This differentiated approach to tutoring, where individual students are the center of the session, builds the essential learning skills essential to long-term academic success.

By partnering with online tutoring providers committed to student success, such as Pear Deck Tutor, institutions can build a constructive web of support to meet the diverse needs of their students in today's changing higher education landscape.

Ready to learn more? 

If you missed the webinar or wish to delve deeper into the discussions, we encourage you to check out the full recording to see how Pear Deck Tutor can provide essential support for higher education institutions and the students they serve.

If you’re ready to take the next step and see how Pear Deck Tutor can help your campus expand your web of support and meet your students where they are, connect with us today.


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Mollie Breese
Content Marketing Manager

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