Picture a struggling university student having a tough time coping with freedom for the first time.
Maybe they’re caught up in not being required by parents to attend class while at school. Or they simply don’t understand the material as it’s presented.
It could could be devastating change in their life, or the lives of families members far away, that leads to their house of cards falling to the ground.
Whatever the reason, this student is at a high risk of dropping out of school. That’s where Pharos Resources, an Abilene-based higher education consultation firm, steps in.
Working with university and college advisors, Pharos Resources helps identify the at-risk students, connect with them and solve the barriers specific to each individual student, according to company President and Co-founder Matt Boisvert.
Rachel Phillips-Buck, left, and Matt Boisvert, of Pharos Resources, an Abilene-based higher education consultant firm specializing in student retention practices (Photo: Contributed photo)
“It could be an academic challenge,” Boisvert said, “or it could be a family situation at home that’s causing it. There are wide-ranging concerns … and we’re trying to bring to them an understanding of the power of community. The schools are coming alongside the students to overcome these obstacles.”
Boisvert, who has experience teaching and advising while working at Abilene Christian University before Pharos Resources was founded in 2005, understands not everyone is going to be saved.
His team understands it, too.
Often, it’s a financial numbers game.
Students pay tuition, the No. 1 source of revenue for every college and university out there. So, keeping one student enrolled who otherwise drops out can be lucrative for the business model.
Keeping eight to 10 who would drop out can keep a university from having to make significant cuts each school year.
One of their clients was going through 10 years of hard decisions, Boisvert said. When Pharos arrived, university leadership clued them in that $200,000 was to be cut from the staff budget.
During preliminary meetings, Boisvert said, the university said retaining about eight students who otherwise wouldn’t be paying tuition could save those cuts from becoming reality.
University retention specialist, under Pharos Resources leadership, set out to identify 16, he said.
Taking one or two students each, at first, the university helped 24 students that semester, Boisvert said.
“They were able to stop the cuts and they ended up being able to invest in a new basketball arena,” Boisvert said. “In three years, they went from operating in a deficit to having an investment mentality. We even met with the manager of the bookstore who was excited to tell us about how she felt empowered to help (one) student.”
A lot of the program’s success falls directly on the shoulders of Rachel Phillips-Buck, Pharos Resources’ vice president for student success and a senior consultant.
While Boisvert runs the overall show, it’s Phillips-Buck who regularly meets with clients and works with them to develop whatever strategy they deem the best fit.
She knows how it works, she said, because back in the time of her student life, she was at-risk.
Often times, she finds herself wondering what would’ve worked for her when she was a student, what she really needed at the time that wasn’t readily available, and turn it around and make it a strength for the client.
“We understand academic issues are a symptom of what’s going on,” she said. “Most often, something is going on in their life. So, a faculty member may say this student’s not doing well in class. They’re feeling overwhelmed in their life.
Phillips-Buck said one specific incident sticks in her mind because of the gravity of the situation. She may never forget it.
A student was having serious issues with depression. One day, the student’s parent called the school upset the student couldn’t be reached.
Because Pharos Resources puts a premium on developing relationships, the university’s dean of students got involved personally and helped solve the struggles of a student in need, Phillips-Buck said.
That student gained a deeper appreciation for the university, she said.
“These are not few and far between,” she said. “If you have one of those stories, you’re doing a great thing.”
Heading into 2020, unaware the world would figuratively burn down around them, the Pharos Resources team developed a theme around enhancing student community.
Suddenly, community at school evaporated overnight as the threat of COVID-19 led the world to shut down. In the U.S., it happened right around spring break in March.
Since, Pharos Resources has been busy helping its clients fully meet the needs of their students. Or, trying.
At first, the stressful work was easy to accomplish. They viewed it almost like triage in a hospital setting. The important stuff gets done and then you immediately move on to the next fire.
On their end, the team developed a student impact survey, which was distributed to thousands of students across those who contract with the company.
About 10,000 replied, offering excellent insight into what was happening in their world, Boisvert said. Like the challenges of learning online and not being physically on campus.
“The survey allowed us to show our schools they have a whole new group of at-risk students,” Boisvert said. “There are a lot of problems with learning online. The students were missing all of the life and engagement happening (on campus).”
What they found was schools addressed the education aspect quickly, Phillips-Buck added. Within a couple weeks in most cases — including locally across Abilene’s colleges and universities — students and faculty both were using Zoom and other virtual conferencing tools to provide as much of the education experience as possible.
What couldn’t be replicated was the social aspect of being at a college campus, from participating in clubs or sports to eating lunch with friends in the dining hall, Phillips-Buck said.
“These schools sent their (students) back home where they don’t have WiFi or a space for learning, or maybe their parents are first generation and so they don’t really understand,” Phillips-Buck said. “When they were sent home, some of their student successes were wiped out from under them.”
During the flurry of reactions as COVID-19 raged early in the pandemic, Boisvert made a connection with Travel Channel personality Anthony Melchiorri.
It has blossomed into a collaboration where Melchiorri provides some training tips for those retention experts using the Pharos Resources model of relational retention.
But it all started with a podcast.
“When COVID hit, not only was I enjoying the nine seasons of ‘Hotel Impossible,’ but Anthony started doing a daily podcast talking about what’s happening in the hospitality industry,” Boisvert said. “Higher education was hit hard, but hotels were really struggling because travel went from an all-time high to zero.
“I sent him a message through LinkedIn and amazingly he messaged back and said, ‘Let’s talk.'”
It turns out a lot of the messages Melchiorri has for the hospitality industry translated well into Boisvert’s higher education space. They started a series of videos called “Mission First,” guiding universities through preparing and acting the right way.
Melchiorri has completed several videos by now, providing a 30,000-foot view of the situation and putting new ideas in heads of university officials to help prepare for — and, now, sustain — life on campus during a pandemic. Like getting the university president involved in addressing individual students forced to quarantine for extended periods of time.
“Anthony’s really fun,” Phillips-Buck said. “He’s just like he is on the show. When we’re doing webinars together, I just hold on for dear life as he comes up with all of these good ideas.”
Recently, the partnership addressed stamina. They look at the situation like everyone’s running a race. But unlike a plotted course, where the end goal is sitting there waiting for people to approach, this race has no finish line. Or, if it does, the line keeps moving further back.
Anyone who has run a marathon, Phillips-Buck said, understands the Mile 18 strategy. That’s when runners start negotiating with themselves, she said, trying to get just a few more steps closer to the end.
That’s where they envision the world right now, just negotiating with itself.
“Over the summer, we were helping them prepare for students to return, curating all of the best tools for them,” Phillips-Buck said. “Now that we’re in September, every client we’ve talked to says, ‘I’m tired.’ They’re starting from a deficit. They just need encouragement of being in the middle of really hard process.”
Time will tell how effective those negotiations were.
School is back in session. But that doesn’t mean the COVID-19 nightmare is finished. We still need your support helping us cover what’s happening inside schools across the city. Please consider, if you’re able, purchasing a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com to help support the hard work of education reporter Timothy Chipp and the rest of the staff so Abilene’s entire story can be told. Without you and your support, this operation is impossible.
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