Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Why the more we look at TrustNavigator, the more questions we have
(or A Tale of Two Proposals, Pt. 2: The Collegiate Boogaloo)
by Chris Horne
So continues our ongoing review of the University of Akron’s attempt to outsource a success coaching program. Here, we take a deeper look at specific elements of the TrustNavigator proposal, challenging comments made by officials and offering a side-by-side look at parts of each proposal from five of the 15 criteria listed in the RFP, which also includes each company’s score by the selection committee.
No notes from the selection committee were provided in the public records we received from the university. In fact, you’ll notice UA’s official perspective and response to specific questions missing throughout. That’s because the university is not responding to specific questions from The Devil Strip about the success coach RFP, the proposals, comments by university officials or the companies involved.
After leaving voice messages for and sending emails to Associate VP of Student Success Dr. Stacey Moore, who has spoken about this with WAKR, NEOMG, the Akron Beacon Journal, Inside Higher Ed and Crain’s Cleveland, I received this response via email from university spokesman Wayne Hill, who I also tried and failed to reach by phone for comment:
“The University is still in negotiations with the company, seeking to develop mutually agreeable contract terms, and we do not have any further information to offer at this time.”
In all, we submitted more than a dozen questions like: How long was the RFP (request for proposals) open? Why the rush to do this? Considering the evaluation process, it seems the early July deadline for proposals cuts it really close for any company to perform the requested tasks. Why not do a smaller pilot instead of one with 4000 students? Etc.
When asked whether the university was refusing to answer or incapable of answering, Hill wrote back: “For now, the statement I sent you is what we have.”
Statements that need to be clarified:
- Roth said they spoke specifically with TrustNavigator’s chief operating officer, Rob Reho and founder Tom Roulston III.
- InsideTrack spokesman Dave Jarrat says the only call they received from UA was to inform them that another company won the bid, reporting the company “never had a phone conversation—nor did we receive any written inquiries or voicemails about our proposal.”
President Scott Scarborough said to WAKR’s Chris Keppler: “… they (InsideTrack) weren’t able to deliver the service that we wanted because what they were going to provide was only kind of an online version but we wanted that physical presence. We wanted that person who was on campus.”
- InsideTrack spokesman Dave Jarrat says the company provides remote coaching for research-backed pedagogical reasons (because digital natives are more likely to turn to their smartphones than schedule an in-person appointment with a coach), but still offered, in their proposal, to discuss hiring UA alumni for on-campus positions.
- Having an on-campus presence is not one of the requirements or expectations listed in the RFP.
Aspects of the RFP and proposals that don’t fit below but are worth mentioning:
A#1) When did the university expect TrustNavigator would submit a proposal?
This curious section in the RFP guidelines reads like the university was anticipating a proposal from a company that has no experience in higher education:
“It will be important for companies to demonstrate their success delivering such services in higher education settings if available. If not available, the company should demonstrate how it is predicted that such services will produce the desirable outcomes.”
By way of comparison, a recent RFP to outsource an online RN-to-BSN program through UA’s nursing school lists the expectation that proposals come from “a leader in the field and who offers a best practices approach to program implementation and delivery. …A management team that is the best in the field, and one that is exceptionally knowledgeable, experienced, competent and professional…”
However, this difference could be related to the value of the online nursing contract, which is potentially worth $10-$15 million a year to the university and upwards of three times that to the selected outsource entity, Academic Partnerships, the only respondent to that RFP.
B#2) How TrustNavigator plans to make money on UA students
In the WAKR interview, unsolicited by Keppler, Scarborough describes TrustNavigator’s plans to sell its success coaching services directly to UA students via an on-campus student organization it set up, Scarborough says, “like any student organization with a student sponsorship…”
Here’s how explains why this matters: “Knowing that, then it became much more viable, in terms, to imagine how we could simply engage them (TrustNavigator) to provide this same service for all of our students, not just the students who could afford to pay for it.”
TrustNavigator’s own proposal is less clear, offering this jargon-y account: “Prior to this program they had established a student led affinity group to be introduced in the fall and had recruited student leaders to lead the program. It is expected based on participation this may supplement income and expand programming to a wider audience and students closer to matriculation and closer to measurement of career engagement.”
Additional points on this topic:
- Moore told NEOMG the university met with TrustNavigator principals in the spring but didn’t explain why or for what purpose.
- TrustNavigator’s proposal also seemingly outlines its plans to use its nonprofit status to sell tax-deductible sponsorships to corporations who want access to the students the University of Akron is coaching paying it to coach through graduation.
On page 10 of their proposal, under heading 10:
“Being on multiple campuses TrustNavigator offers both marketing departments of corporations targeting millennials as well as HR departments looking to hire millennials unique combined marketing and hiring visibility. Moreover, as a nonprofit, tax‐exempt charitable and educational entity, TrustNavigator offers a marketing opportunity as a partner of the University for companies and sponsors to make charitable contributions as well targeted use of sponsorship dollars.”
C#3) What’s the budget for this anyway?
The university’s RFP makes no mention of budget restrictions but there are several references in the TrustNavigator proposal to “budget limits,” “budget considerations,” etc.
- There are no such references in the InsideTrack proposal.
- The university’s budget cuts were not announced until July 10, three days after the RFP closed.
- Roulston told Inside Higher Ed, the company has not yet started hiring—let alone trained—any of the coaches it has promised, up to 75% of whom are supposed to be UA grads:
“We’re not physically going to be able to hire enough competent people to fully populate where we want to get to for longer-term goals, but we’ll be able to introduce this concept at orientation.”
- InsideTrack has 300 success coaches working in centers around the country, all of whom have college degrees and half, Jarrat says, have advanced degrees.
D#4) Where did the need for a success coach program originate?
The RFP directs companies to review the university’s Retention Plan online but the Retention Plan doesn’t mention the need for or plans for success coaches, even in reports by the “New Ideas Team,” of which Moore and Hill are members. It is unclear on what the RFP criteria is based.
- Example: “The Success Coach helps to ensure that every student feels supported to succeed and will meet with assigned students at least monthly.”
- Unclear whether this is an industry best practice, personal preference or backed by research.
- InsideTrack’s proposal lists its standard service at bi-weekly interactions.
- Roulston, in a June 2015 article by Freshwater Cleveland, said TrustNavigator would offer “Someone who will sit with these students every month and ask them what courses they are taking.”
- UA’s research-supported Retention Plan yielded significant positive results last fall.
- Moore says the success coach program became a priority, a year earlier when Scarborough was hired, but the RFP was only open for ten business days, starting Friday, June 24, 2015.
- The RFP’s “Examples of Success Coach performance activities” include numerous activities already performed on campus by other departments.
Lastly, for all the emphasis on hiring former UA alums and impacting the local economy through these hires, there are two questions that come to mind:
- Could the repeated mentions (by the RFP and university officials) of hiring alumni be viewed as an admission that low-paying ($28,000/yr), high-stress (TrustNavigator admits the workload will near “burnout” levels) jobs are competitive with the best work UA grads can get with their degree?
- Shouldn’t the university, and therefore the RFP, be more concerned with impacting the local economy by providing an education that allows graduates better options than to work on-campus as a success coach?
EXCERPTS FROM BOTH PROPOSALS AND THEIR SCORES:
TrustNavigator (score = 5, greatly exceeds):
“The Founders of TrustNavigator have each spent over 30 years in the business community. Their experience has led to measurable success and a passion to work with youths in high school and college to both maximize their academic challenges and prepare for their careers. Hundreds of interviews, internships and training sessions provide unique experience. Personal exposure and implementation of all aspects of the success coaching model in corporate roles brings program experience and organizational preparedness as well as entrepreneurial applications. What differentiates the results is accountability of the Trust Navigator approach. …Retention is a direct result of the well‐being of each individual and this is no different in an academic environment than in a corporate space. The differences are in measurement, enforceability of key factors and the incentive of the students buying into the engagement by recognizing personal value and accomplishment. …TrustNavigator has numerous alumni of the University of Akron both in management and operations.”
InsideTrack (score = 2.5, between moderate and meets):
“We work in close cooperation with our partner institutions’ internal teams. Regular —usually weekly — meetings are held between InsideTrack’s Campus Director (team leader) and core counterparts at the college or university. On a daily basis, the Campus Director and Coaches interact with key staff from functional areas that interact directly with the students. Additionally, one to three times per year, InsideTrack executives run program review and strategy workshops with senior administrators. …InsideTrack’s coaching methodology is based on student engagement research developed by Sanford, Rendon, Astin, Tinto, Gardner, and Kuh. We have integrated their insights and our proprietary research into a robust methodology that works across multiple communication channels and with all types of students. We continuously refine our pedagogy and tools based our experience and the latest advances in behavioral psychology and technology. … Our methodology consists of eight focus areas that our research has shown have the biggest impact on student outcomes.”
TrustNavigator (score = 4, strong):
“One of the founding principals, Rob Reho (Chief Operating Ambassador) is a University of Akron Alumnus class of 1991, as well as Anna Zeller (Envoy Ambassador) class of 2015 who will assist with on campus recruitment of Alumni as Success Coaches and student ambassadors/officers at the University. It is expected that over 75% of the Success Coaches will be Akron Alumni as a key component of the job description is a familiarity with the campus, the culture and the preexisting departments and resources on campus.”
InsideTrack (score = 1, weak):
“Additional discussions are needed to develop a full plan, but our mobile application (along with coach recommendations) has the ability to connect students with university resources based on student needs and/or specific timeframes throughout the student lifecycle.”
TrustNavigator (score = 4, strong):
“TrustNavigator is in the process of hiring an HR manager for the campus as well as Alumni Anna Zeller to oversee and pinch hit for variables that might arise. Budget limitations limit the over hiring flexibility that would ultimately benefit the program. Therefore TrustNavigator will use the bench strength of its home office proximity in Cleveland as well as the Success Coaches hired for the affinity group upper class program. This is another reason to engage student ambassadors for each Success Coach offers more depth to the TrustNavigator program. Due to the short window until orientation it is expected to take a majority of the first semester to get up to 20 Success Coaches hired while also expecting some attrition simply with growing pains of a new chapter on campus. Between the bench from the home office, student ambassadors, the school assistance in identifying alumni candidates and a high familiarity of management with the campus culture we are confident in our processes in the hiring and staffing of the Success Coaches.
“Unfortunately, there are few ways to overcome the short runway to ‘staff up.’ Success Coaches, train personnel and implement processes and procedures. This is where management can fill in as well as the resources of the affinity program for upper class students.”
InsideTrack (score = 2, moderate):
“InsideTrack has made significant investments in staff optimization, student marketing, and analytics. Staff optimization enables InsideTrack to configure coaching based on our prior experience working with similar student populations, while being flexible enough to ramp up/down when incoming data warrants it. With nearly 300 coaches serving 40+ campuses, we are able to temporarily assign coaches who are in between projects without incurring additional costs.”
TrustNavigator (score = 3.5, between meets and strong):
“Thirty years of corporate management, human resources, training, marketing and organizational management by the two principals personally overseeing the Akron program is key. A full time Akron native in management and another in on campus operations are also critical. Our technology partner was a key overseer of the Summa Health Care integration giving TrustNavigator a unique competency for data collection, management and analysis. Budgetary restrictions in particular in the first half of the year may prevent any further dedicated staff other than a management HR person to hire, instill processes and procedures and administer payroll and benefits.”
InsideTrack (score = 2, moderate):
“Key managers have all previously served as coaches and received promotions based on consistent performance and client/student satisfaction. Professional vitas can be made available if our proposal moves beyond the evaluation phase. … All coaches are hired using InsideTrack’s unique and rigorous 8‐step recruiting process. InsideTrack’s proprietary training program features a 6‐level certification program that includes regular monitoring, measurement and feedback.
“InsideTrack has developed a highly‐refined implementation process to ensure a strong operational partnership with the client university and maximize the impact of the coaching program. This process includes strategy sessions with university leaders, site visits to subject campuses, information sessions with staff and faculty, integration of data flows and systems, and development of relevant training and communications materials. Through this process, we clarify key aspects of the program, including how:
- Coaching will integrate with existing operations
- Staff will be trained on coaching and coaches trained on the university and its existing services
- Students will learn about the coaching program
- Coaches will articulate the coach role, in conjunction with other student service support staff”
TrustNavigator (score = 4, strong)
“TrustNavigator is domiciled in the Northern Ohio region and already has hired multiple Akron alumni as well as northern Ohio residents. We expect to hire predominantly Akron Alumni over the next three months as Success Coaches. More importantly we expect the program to become a model to attract more highly qualified students from not only the region but those outside the immediate area because of the recognition of value added from the Success Coach model.
“A critical measurement will be the utilization of partner departments on campus. As departments get more utilized their throughput increases effectiveness and efficiency while increasing retention. A more profitable campus model is the result benefitting all constituents. Active reengagement of Alumni attracts spending to the region both from those domiciled locally but also encourages development growth.”
InsideTrack (score = 1, weak):
“This would require additional discussion, but InsideTrack has previously established local coaching centers staffed by both tenured coaches (who relocate) and newly hired (and certified) coaches. Space planning must also be evaluated. Regardless of the arrangement, remote coaching would remain a critical component for ramping up/down based on seasonal demand.”
Chris Horne has worked as a journalist and freelance writer for much of the last decade, including as a columnist and editor for The 11th Hour alt-weekly paper, a city hall beat reporter for the (Macon) Telegraph, digital content manager for 13WMAZ-TV and a web producer for Cleveland’s newsnet5.com (WEWS). He is the publisher of The Devil Strip. You can email him at chris (at) thedevilstrip (dot) com.