Setting New Priorities for Institutions Serving Significant Numbers of At-Risk Students

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John W. Dysart
The Dysart Group, Inc.

The higher education landscape is changing quickly. Demographic realities are impacting public, private and for-profit institutions. We are seeing, at many colleges and universities, increasing numbers of minority students, first-generation college students and high need students. Such trends are likely to continue for years to come.

The good news is that there are literally hundreds of institutions willing to recruit and enroll students of color, students with high financial need, students with low standardized test scores, students with lower than average high school grade point averages and students coming from families with little or no history of post-secondary experience. The bad news is that retention and graduation outcomes at many of these colleges and universities are poor. Institutions that enroll large numbers of at-risk students must recognize that their education and co-curricular offerings must be radically different than the normal model. The fact is that schools serving this population must conduct their educational business in a manner tailored to the students they enroll.

Financial Aid

The institutional approach to financial aid makes a difference. Unless the college or university has a large endowment, it is unlikely that schools serving at-risk populations are going to have low discount rates.

Too great an emphasis on an arbitrary discount rate goal can result in increased attrition and outstanding receivables.

Serving high need students may mandate a greater commitment to need-based aid, a higher discount rate and a more detailed and targeted packaging strategy.

More effort must be put into effectively encouraging new and returning students to apply for financial aid which allows more time for financial aid planning.


Technology is available to better track student success. The ability to monitor student progress can allow for proactive intervention.

Academic support personnel can intervene if students are not attending class.

Representatives from Student Services can contact students to actively encourage participation in co-curricular activities.

Contact and communication by all campus constituent groups with students can be recorded.

Students struggling with payment plans can be contacted as soon as the first payment is missed rather than waiting until the end of the term when the accumulated balance may be too large to resolve.

Proactive Intervention

Having the ability to track students is meaningless without personnel available to intervene when necessary. Proactive intervention is perhaps the most powerful tool for student success at institutions serving at-risk populations.

Colleges and universities will need to invest in personnel to intervene with students.

Continuing to rely on faculty or already over-worked staff in the academic support department is unlikely to work.

While finding the resources to hire a group of professional advisors or a team of mentors is difficult, it may be impossible to serve at-risk populations well without such an investment.

Better Informed Academic Advising

Academic advisors must be able to work with students to keep them on track to graduate in four years whenever possible. Students who take five or six years to graduate are pretty much guaranteed to enter the workforce with higher debt loads and lost opportunity income.

These days academic advisors must be knowledgeable about financial aid. Federal rules on satisfactory academic progress must be understood by advisors. Uninformed scheduling can result in students running out of financial aid before they graduate.


Doing everything to keep costs as low as possible is obvious.

Conduct a comprehensive review of the institutional budget to see if there are opportunities for savings. Its easy to get trapped in a budgeting rut as we continue to invest in services or initiatives because we have always done so.

Is it time to reconsider how we invest in libraries given technological realities?

Are we taking full advantage of classroom resources by ensuring that courses are offered at least five days a week, all day long?

Are student/faculty ratios appropriate?

When was the last time an institution-wide review was conducted regarding required textbooks? Is the cost of each textbook really being considered annually? Is it possible to reduce the costs by using more resources available electronically?

The number of institutions serving at-risk students is growing and demographics indicate that the trend will continue. It is terrific that there are colleges and universities willing to attract and educate disadvantaged students. It is likely, however, that such schools will need to change their business and education models in order to serve these students well.

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