By Dr. Kimberly R. Cline
College and university leaders are dedicated to recruiting high quality applicants with a focus on retaining those students through graduation, and embarking them on successful career paths. In today’s global economy, we aspire to provide students with the best possible competitive edge to succeed in their desired fields after graduation.
At Mercy College, we have found that our PACT program is central to advancing in these ultimately interconnected realms: from recruitment, through the college experience, towards graduation and a successful career.
The Mercy College Personalized Achievement ContracT (PACT) is a mentoring program specifically designed to improve engagement, persistence and college completion, while fully preparing students for immediate career placement or graduate school.
At its core, PACT is a highly personalized model in which professional mentors are paired with students from recruitment through graduation. Mentors are full time college employees, cross- trained and tasked with supporting their students through the educational process, providing encouragement to help students achieve their personal best. Students collaborate with one central contact person—their PACT mentor—a highly trained specialist who integrates college transition issues, enrollment processes, financial aid services, academic advising, student engagement, and career and leadership development to become the student’s “personal coach”. Together, the student and mentor establish a customized plan based on the individual student’s academic and career goals.
The holistic nature of the PACT program breaks down the traditional barriers of student service operations. This realigned and refined structure serves to eliminate some of the barriers and inevitable frustration that students and parents can experience when assistance is fragmented into segregated silos, such as departments of enrollment services, student life, academic advising, and career services. In effect, it creates a true “one-stop shop” for student services.
We initially implemented the PACT mentoring program at Mercy College in 2009 with a pilot class of 50 students. Now it has grown to include more than 2,000 strong, with a goal of all entering freshmen participating by the fall of 2013. While it is reasonable to expect that such a program would have a substantive effect on retention, we have also found it to be a motivating force in recruitment—a welcome ancillary benefit.
The PACT mentoring program is an integral aspect of all our recruitment efforts across the board. At the onset, our admission counselors explain the unique program to students and parents at recruiting venues. Prospective students are encouraged to meet and talk with PACT mentors at on-campus recruitment events, and parents agree that the program adds tremendous value. PACT is also featured in all of our digital and print marketing materials, in a detailed yet accessible format that speaks directly to students’ needs and concerns.
The effect of this integration is immediate and measurable. According to Deirdre Whitman, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Mercy College, PACT resonates with students.
“Students ‘light up’ and have a highly positive reaction when they hear about the mentoring program,” reports Whitman. “Of course they are looking forward to being independent at college, but they can also be somewhat intimidated by the prospect of navigating the whole experience on their own. So they are naturally attracted to the idea of there being a helpful mentor at the college who really knows their story and is there for them.”
The prospect of a dedicated ‘go-to’ person is appealing to everyone, but in particular to first-generation college students. For these students, affirming that they will have the right balance of support to ensure that they stay in college, excel academically, and graduate well-prepared for their careers is often a deciding factor during the recruitment process. And parents, whether they attended college themselves or not, are also encouraged to know that there will be a dedicated mentor who remains with their son or daughter throughout the four years of college—someone who will understand their issues and stand ready to assist.
The PACT program also elicits a highly favorable response from guidance counselors, many of whom are aware of the studies that show mentoring improves the chances of a productive transition to college. Looking toward the future, these guidance professionals hope to hear that their students not only did well in college but went on to find rewarding jobs or graduate programs in their fields. PACT facilitates this desired outcome by utilizing proven tools such as leadership training, e-portfolio development, and internship opportunities to give students a competitive edge.
“The comment we hear so frequently, from both guidance counselors and parents is ‘I wish there had been something like this when I was a student,’” notes Deirdre Whitman. “We can all relate. We all remember times when we certainly could have benefited from having a mentor to help us through the many decisions and difficulties of college.”
The effect of PACT mentoring on Mercy College’s application numbers and cycles has been clearly substantiated since the program was implemented. The effect of PACT on enrollment has also been notable. First-time, full-time bachelor degree seeking enrollment has increased more than 33 percent since fall 2009, bringing in the largest class in the College’s history. In addition, the academic quality of students has risen, while the geographic base has expanded in both secondary and tertiary markets.
The PACT model was developed through careful study and consideration of decades of research on retention and mentoring. A key factor that sets this model apart and makes it work so well is the high-contact nature of the mentoring. PACT students have an average of 16.5 interactions a semester with their advisors—compared to a national average of 2.5 interactions.
Since today’s students favor electronic communication, we make certain it is easy for them to reach their mentors by text messaging, calling or email. But—in-person, face-to-face contact with their mentors is the most critical.
These one-on-one meetings give the mentoring relationship a personalized dimension that is irreplaceable. The student and mentor develop a mutual trust and the student sees a real person who cares about them in the mentor. This leads students to open up about issues they might be facing, and it has a direct influence on retention by making it less likely that they will leave college without telling anyone of difficulties they are facing—and trying every means possible to solve problems. Mentors share that the relationship also has tremendous rewards, as they celebrate the academic and personal accomplishments of their students.
“In essence, the PACT program is a personalized approach to the national issue of college completion, says Andrew Person, Executive Director of Student Success and Engagement at Mercy College. “The high number of contacts that includes in-person meetings enables the mentors to identify problems as soon as they arise. Sometimes a mentor can tell something is wrong just by looking at the student. They can help the student open up and let them know what’s really happening, so they know how to help. This empowers mentors to be highly proactive in offering help and solutions.”
As a United States Naval Academy graduate and a former U.S. Navy officer on an aircraft carrier, Andrew Person uses the analogy that the mentor acts as a “wingman” to the student. “A wingman is a pilot whose plane is positioned behind and outside the leader in a formation of flying aircraft,” he explains. “The mentor acts as a wingman by letting the student take the lead, but providing constant back-up and staying in close proximity.”
The rewarding effect of the PACT program is already emerging. Since the first PACT cohort was enrolled in the spring of 2009, we are seeing a strong and steady increase in retention of PACT students over students who do not participate in the mentoring program. The PACT program assessments of student readiness, academic performance, career development, and persistence are also showing promising results.
We have been actively engaged in sharing the PACT model with the wider academic community, with the result of its being named a “Best Practice” for retention and career services by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). In addition, the U.S. Department of Education funded Mercy College $2.5 million to create a PACT program for graduate students. Most tellingly, 100 percent of our PACT students surveyed since 2009 stated they would recommend the program to other students. This clearly confirms that the PACT mentoring program works to advance our recruitment, retention and student engagement goals.
—Dr. Kimberly R. Cline is president of Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, New York, a private, nonprofit institution founded in 1950 offering more than 90 undergraduate and graduate programs within five schools: Business, Education, Health and Natural Sciences, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Liberal Arts.