Home Student Retention Connection Builds Retention: A New Student Advising Model to Increase Your School’s Graduation and Placement Rates
Connection Builds Retention: A New Student Advising Model to Increase Your School’s Graduation and Placement Rates

Connection Builds Retention: A New Student Advising Model to Increase Your School’s Graduation and Placement Rates


By Theresa Miulli, Consultant and Keynote Speaker, T.M. Speaks

In the career education sector, retention coupled with verified employment are the top areas of focus for institutions. With positive attrition and persistence being the pinpointed concentration in most institutions, current research in the higher education sector is robust on advising, mentoring, and coaching programs, all focused, however, on the traditional student. Career college students come with a unique set of challenges and characteristics, and yet there is little support or guidance in the development of retention programs for these students. The following proposes a simple, yet innovative plan for career college student advising to best meet the needs of our students.

When made a priority in schools, a program such as this could result in higher graduation and placement rates, while producing happier, more proficient students.

Career and technical schools have an important place in society. There are a variety of reasons a student may choose to enter vocational school programs rather than going a more traditional route. First and foremost, a career college is typically a quick pathway to a new career, often requiring a much shorter length of time to complete than a traditional two to four-year degree program, while simultaneously providing a less expensive, swifter route to a steady income. With this shorter timeframe to graduation, the return on investment for career college programs is often much greater than a traditional Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. In addition, in our new digital world, students now demand an education that is relevant and focused on their professional goals, something career colleges offer with their career-focused education.

With all of this in mind, I believe it is now time we begin to focus and develop specialized advising plans that align with the same goals as our career college students; mentored guidance towards specific careers. Traditional school models have begun to shift to a guided pathways model of advising, focusing on faculty mentorship and student connection to goals. This serves as a strong foundation for a career college advising plan but does not necessarily address all the intricacies associated with career college students. Career college students demand a smooth pathway to professional work. Until we, as a sector, embrace an employment culture, allowing career placement to infiltrate our advising programs, we will continue to struggle with graduation rates and placement.

Serving as a Director of Education for three schools in Florida, as well as a consultant with a variety of trade schools around the country, my experiences have continued to alert me of the same issues over and over again. Career college students are different! Outside responsibilities often cloud their pathway to success, and often, they do not have the tenacity and/or confidence to move into employment upon graduation. With the mission of this sector being employment, I kept asking myself, how could we better equip these students to handle the obstacles life hands them during school, as well as really push them to employment afterward? In research for my own Doctoral dissertation, I realized that there was little to no research on the vocational education sector, nor was anyone trying to address the unique challenges our students face.

In an effort to increase graduation and employment rates within the institution’s I work with, I have developed the GRIT (Graduation Roadmap Implemented Together) advising model and have recently implemented it at two beauty, spa and wellness schools in SW Florida. Still moving through the experimentation phase of implementation, the GRIT advising model involves two key aspects of advising; faculty mentorship and guided career pathways.I believe combining these two initiatives will ultimately keep career college students focused on the end goal, a career. This two-tiered approach to advising is broken down as follows:

Student success coaching

Taking a cue from the community college sector, the GRIT advising model focuses on industry professional faculty members, leading students to career success. Each student is assigned to a faculty member from within their program. The purpose of assigning students to faculty within the program is to demonstrate the success these professionals have realized in the student’s scope of practice. These faculty members should be able to provide relevant guidance stemming from their own professional experiences in the industry.

Faculty have been trained in small groups on the expectations of mentorship, as well as how to implement the career pathways program with each student. In an effort to garner buy-in from faculty, they not only helped me tailor the potential career pathways to meet our students’ needs but also were given a voice in developing a sort of “best practices” for their own institution in how to best implement this program. Monthly meetings are held to continue to address challenges with students, as well as offer new insights or ideas into how we can improve the program. Without faculty ownership, a program such as this will not succeed!

Faculty-led mentorship and coaching provides students a personalized monthly coaching session to discuss faculty experiences, student concerns with their program, as well as questions concerning job readiness and professional expectations once in the field. These conversations and relationships are invaluable when it comes to increasing student success. Connection leads to retention. Each meeting centers around a set of career pathways, chosen by students at the beginning of their program.

Career pathways

As already stated, students choosing to attend career colleges demand (as they should) a clear path to a profession, and ultimately placement upon graduation. However, these students are often less focused on school, as they typically carry adult responsibilities throughout their attendance. These students often have full-time jobs, children, and additional responsibilities to their communities and families. With this in mind, it is very easy to lose focus on the goals they originally set when they first enroll in a program.

In addition, many of the career college programs are robust with career options upon graduation. Programs such as Cosmetology, Medical Assisting, and Welding provide a wide variety of employment options upon completion of the program. This world of possibilities can be daunting and overwhelming to students at graduation. Ultimately for some, it leads to a continued commitment to the job they held prior to enrollment. Fear, confusion, and lack of guidance leads students to remain stagnant, rather than moving forward with the originally intended career.

As the focus of the GRIT model, career pathways provide faculty mentors an opportunity to guide students toward specific career goals in their field of choice.

In their initial meeting with coaches, students choose three to four pathways to commit to throughout their program. Each pathway provides eight to ten checklist items, all helping students to ultimately build a portfolio for graduation. Each month, coaches sit with their students to assign, discuss, and review each item and the progress they are making on each pathway. At graduation, students receive certificates for the completion of each pathway.

Pathways are created with the industry in mind. For example, a Cosmetology student may choose from pathways to include, but not be limited to makeup artist, salon owner, platform artist, and educator. Each checklist item is a free step toward success. For example, a makeup artist pathway may have photo requirements, webinars, business plans, and pricing structure projects. A salon owner may have requirements that include a marketing plan project, social media plans, local permit research, and shadowing of local salons. Pathways should be consistent, but customizable to best address each student’s professional goals. Each step in a pathway should be free to students, allowing every single student to participate in the program, regardless of financial standing.


Using faculty members as coaches provides a multitude of benefits to both students and school administration. From a student’s perception, one-on-one engagement with a faculty member provides individualized support through obstacles and potential struggles they may be facing in navigating their lives both inside and outside school. From a school management point of view, assigning faculty students to coach throughout their program provides a simple, clean way of tracking retention and graduation rates, per faculty member. In the private school sector, this is an invaluable metric to determine teacher efficacy.

Each faculty member is assigned 15-20 students and is expected to meet with each student approximately 20 minutes each month. These meetings come with very specific discussion points, all intended to build connection, discover potential obstacles, and reassess goals. Faculty members are to use this time to assist students not only in the reassessment of goals, but to build remedial action plans should a student be falling behind in academic success and/or attendance (should your institution have attendance policies in place). All points of the monthly meeting are documented, and records kept both in the student’s academic file, as well as in the faculty member’s possession. Any potential obstacles to completion are alerted to the team through a monthly email. This email reviews any drops, potential issues, graduates, and placements.

Implementation of the GRIT program, or an advising model such as this, takes a holistic approach to student retention and complete buy-in from academic leadership.

This only works with dedicated educator office time, a team of faculty that fully understands that retention and placement should be the primary objectives of their day to day activity, and academic leadership that believes in innovative, student-centric solutions. As a consultant and speaker, I have found both sides of the spectrum. I have seen schools full of faculty that are desperate for the tools and time needed to successfully navigate students to success. I have seen schools with leaders ready to enact change, but resistant faculty that refuse to understand that teaching goes beyond the classroom. It is only through a unified team, working together towards a common goal, that a school can successfully implement student-focused advising models such as this, and ultimately improve graduation and placement rates. Ultimately, we owe our students the best education, guidance, and mentorship possible. When we choose to enter into education, we choose to commit to putting the student’s success above all else. Until we pledge to coaching beyond the lecture, we are only doing half the job.

Theresa Miulli

THERESA MIULLI currently serves as the Director of Education for Compass Rose Foundation, while concurrently providing career education consulting services and education training for teachers. With a license in Cosmetology, and a Master’s in Non-profit Management, Theresa is passionate about providing relevant, easy pathways for career college students in their mission for a new professional future. Currently earning her Doctorate in Higher Education, Theresa brings a unique perspective to academic management and curriculum development, blending her vocational school experiences with her traditional education. She is currently available for a variety of career college consulting services, centric to student success, faculty development, and curriculum review.

Contact Information: Theresa Miulli // Consultant and Keynote Speaker // T.M. Speaks // 239-292-6325 // tmiulli@hotmail.com // theresamiulli.com


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