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Susan F. Imbeah, St Louis Community College

Susan Imbeah.jpgA quick search of the blended position across institutions reveals that this term describes mostly faculty/administrator positions in advising.  Although the blended position is known by various names in different institutions, there is one underlying factor: the incumbents do more than academic advising, while building relationships towards student success.  Some of the responsibilities included are academic support and counseling.  Our experiences at St. Louis Community College have been successful in implementing a position that meets student needs across multiple offices.  This article looks at our experiences with the blended position and why, despite its challenges, it might be worth considering at other similar institutions.  

At St Louis Community College, management has gone outside the box to include disability services, financial aid, enrollment services, and recruitment.  This growing trend varies in scope depending on the institution that offers this position.  Ackerman and Schibrowsky (2007-2008) developed the term Student Relationship Management (SRM) describing “relationships that institutional agents (eg., counselors, advisors, faculty members) create, develop, and maintain with students” (p. 21).  This definition could partly define the blended position.  The lack of definitive information on the blended position in advising indicates a greater need to generate dialogue on this topic and to demonstrate its relevance for institutions today. 

My experience in a blended position is demonstrated on several levels.  I work as the Student Support Specialist for an education center which is part of St Louis Community College.  The purpose of the center is to bring educational opportunities to individuals living in underserved areas and to make programs accessible to the community.  It serves a population with a median household income of about $10,000, an unemployment rate at almost 23%, and only 55% of the residents holding high school/HISET certificates.  

Although the center is a much smaller location of the community college, it still offers full college services to the community from academic services like advising and enrollment to the various support services like disability resources and a library.  In order to provide these services with its lean staff, management has creatively introduced the blended position to satisfy the varied needs of the student.  For example, in lieu of a fully staffed cashier’s office and a slew of enrollment services assistants, the position of the Admissions, Registration and Business Office Assistant was created.  The incumbent provides admissions, cashiering, and some campus life services.  Another blended position, the Coordinator of Student Services, oversees functions in the departments of the Academic Support Center, the Assessment Center, Campus Life, and also has some advising responsibilities. 

At St Louis Community college, there are four main campuses and two education centers.  The education centers are much more than just satellite locations and so require some ingenuity in staffing.  This is where my position as the Student Support Specialist is established.  The role has a broad scope encompassing advising, enrollment, financial aid, disability support services, and community outreach activities. 

  • Advising.  The incumbent’s academic advising duties include advising students on course selection for degree completion and transfer purposes and organizing New Student Registration Workshops (NSRW) for first time in college students.
  • Enrollment.  Enrollment services responsibilities are tied in with recruitment.  The center’s location is strategically situated in the heart of the city, which makes the center unique in the student population that it attracts.  One of the activities the specialist is involved in is mobile enrollment at area high schools.  At Saint Louis Community College, we conduct workshops to walk the students through the entire enrollment process.  At the end of each session, students are duly enrolled and have schedules for the fall semester.
  • Financial Aid.  When it comes to financial aid, the Student Support Specialist provides support with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), ensures that required college financial documentation has been submitted, and all financial aid deadlines have been met.  The specialist is also available to troubleshoot and answer questions about issues that students are having with their accounts.
  • Disability Support.  The disability support services performed by the Student Support Specialist involve identifying students requiring support, providing those students with information about the available services, and walking them through the process of receiving the necessary accommodations.  These can include anything from providing proctors, readers and writers, extended testing time, to seating accommodations.
  • Community Outreach.  This piece of the responsibilities of Student Support Specialist involves reaching out to the community to recruit students to the college.  Invitations are accepted by the specialist to attend a host of community events where prospect cards are handed out, completed, and returned for processing.  The individuals from these cards are contacted with information about the college and programs of interest.  The specialist is also involved in what the college calls Red Carpet events, a major way of opening the college to prospective students.  The Center “rolls out the red carpet” by inviting groups of high school students to a pre-orientation event where they are introduced to a typical day in the life of a college student.  

Importance of the Blended Position—Student Support Specialist

In my view, the blended position is key to the success of the satellite centers or departments of any institution.  This position is worth considering because of its immense benefits to the student and the cost saving measures to the institution overall.

  • A blended position offers the convenience of one person to walk the student through the full enrollment and financial aid processes.  Students have more opportunities to interact with the specialist and so may identify with this individual and feel more comfortable relaying any follow-up questions.  This provides continuity and one identified staff person for the student.  It creates a “one-stop shopping” experience for the student which cuts down on the “run around” that the students may receive at larger locations, resulting in frustration from repeating their experiences, conflicting advice, and wasted time.  The presence of the blended position creates a rewarding and fulfilling experience for the student, resulting in repeat customers who become our word of mouth advertising.
  • The economic benefit here is glaring.  Instead of hiring multiple employees, each tasked with a different function, the institution pays a little more to staff the blended position.  This is a win-win situation for the institution getting more for its buck and the employee having the ability to earn more.
  • The blended position creates the ability to multi-task.  The incumbent can perform several different functions through cross training in different departments, making them a versatile asset to the college.  Other employees also receive cross training which makes them flexible and able to assume different responsibilities to cover for co-workers in their absence.
  • The development of this position enables the college to establish itself in various communities and still provide full services.  This helps to bring the college to the community instead of waiting for the student to come in to the larger campuses, whose locations may not be geographically accessible to the student.  The college is able to serve the community effectively and efficiently.
  • The presence of the blended position enables the college to set up satellite centers where there exists excellent camaraderie among staff due to their close working relationships.  This environment develops a feeling of belongingness and a family atmosphere where morale is high and turnover is low.  Employees at smaller satellites have a sense of ownership that leads to higher work output.  
  • Satellite centers offer smaller class sizes which create great class discussions and an excellent learning atmosphere for students.  Students are able to get clarification of material and generate healthy class discussions without feeling the intimidation of the larger class sizes on the main campuses.

Potential Challenges in Implementing the Position

This concept of a blended position, nevertheless, has its own challenges.  Recruiting for this position is not an easy process.  It requires an expert in academic advising, financial aid, and access (disability services).  If there are any individuals like this, they are few and far between.  There is the need to settle for an expert in one area who has general knowledge in the others.  This means that there will be an on-the-job training period in the first year or two.  

Another daunting challenge is the obvious disconnect from the main campus.  Although the student support specialist stays well informed by attending department meetings, time-sensitive information like changes in financial aid deadlines that come up between meetings is delayed in reaching the specialist, thus affecting the service provided to the student.

Furthermore, implementing this position on larger campuses would only work if advising is implemented on a departmental level.  At institutions where the academic advising responsibilities are centralized, there will also be specialists from other departments providing service to the students.  Therefore, the blended position would be redundant.

In conclusion, the Student Support Specialist is a well-rounded employee and a great asset to the community college.  This position supports a lot of different functions at the community college.  The specialist manages the relationship with the student from start to finish across departments and allows the university to not only cut down on large staff, but also improve student’s satisfaction, which ultimately improves retention (Bruning, 2002).  As described by Ackerman & Schibrowsky, (2007-2008) “Student Relationship Management (SRM) implies a life cycle of recruitment, retention and relationship quality processes” (p. 21).  This defines the functions of the Student Support Specialist in its entirety.  

Susan F. Imbeah
Student Support Specialist
William J Harrison Education Center
St Louis Community College
simbeah@stlcc.edu

References

Ackerman, R., & Schibrowsky, J. (2007–2008). A business marketing strategy applied to student retention: A higher education initiative. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 9(3), 307–336. doi: 10. 2190/CS.9.3.d

Bruning, S. D. (2002). Relationship building as a retention strategy: Linking relationship attitudes and satisfaction evaluations to behavioral outcomes. Public Relations Review, 28, 39–48. doi: 10.1016/S0363-8111(02)00109-1

Cite this article using APA style as: Imbeah, S.R. (2017, December). The blended position: A growing trend. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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