Prioritizing Professional Advising and Intervention for At-Risk Students When Resources are Scarce

Retention and completion are real challenges at so many colleges and universities. Institutions serving large numbers of at-risk students face daunting obstacles.

In my experience, systematic tracking, professional academic advising and active intervention can make a material difference in retention, completion and graduation rates. Unfortunately, implementing such an approach requires investments and many schools just do not have sufficient resources to introduce these initiatives institution-wide immediately.

  • Tracking software is necessary to monitor academic progress, participation in co-curricular activities, financial aid application rates, outstanding balances in the Business Office or missed payments, class attendance and more.
  • Individuals will need to be hired to provide advising, tracking and intervention services and the larger the institution, the more professionals needed.
  • It likely will be necessary to hire an operational supervisor for the initiative depending on the number of professionals in the division.

It is understood that total funding may not be available immediately, but it still makes sense to begin the implementation process, piecemeal if necessary.

Colleges and universities without sufficient resources may need to consider prioritization. In other words, it may be necessary to identify those student populations most at risk to serve in the short-term.

  • You may wish to prioritize by ethnicity as there are significant differences in graduation rates as a function of ethnicity.

  • Recall that there are material differences in family income as a function of ethnicity.

  • Recipients of Federal Pell Grants are less likely to graduate in six years than their non-recipient peers.

  • First-generation college students are at higher risk for attrition. Consider the implications for income levels and first-generation status on six-year graduation rates.

  • Gender can make a difference. Males are less likely to graduate from college than females. This is important because males are also less likely to attend college generally.

  • Obviously, levels of pre-college academic preparation influence graduation rates. Students with low high school grade point averages are less likely to graduate than students who perform better in high school.

  • The College Board’s SAT test scores correlate with graduation rates. Students with higher test scores are much more likely to graduate within six years than those with low test scores

Sometimes, the ability to identify your student populations most at-risk for attrition is not enough to limit investments in retention activities. I recently held a meeting with a group of administrators at a private college seeking to focus the new retention initiative on those populations most at-risk.

The IT department conducted some initial research to break out the new student class as a function of ethnicity, first generation attendance, pre-enrollment academic characteristics, gender and eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant. Even after throwing gender out of the equation, this particular institution found that 70% of their newly enrolled students were at-risk based upon one or more of the characteristics.

The College agreed to reduce the number of students eligible for the retention initiative by selecting only those with two or more of the characteristics. This exercise dropped the number to 50% of the newly enrolled population.

Finally, it was decided to include only those students exhibiting three or more of the at-risk characteristics. The new calculation reduced the eligible population below 25% of newly enrolled students.

While it is unfortunate that not every college or university has the resources to effectively address attrition issues with proven tactics, it may be necessary to be more selective in the students served initially.

Perhaps improving retention rates even for a small percentage of the total enrollment will generate sufficient new resources over several years to expand the number of students served.

John W. Dysart, President
The Dysart Group