Preventing At-Risk Students From Falling Through the Cracks


It may still be early July, but I have been thinking a lot about the fall. As my colleagues and I prepare for next year's crop of students, we have begun to implement some new ideas about which I am very excited. A big part of our strategy involves doing something I have spoken about in earlier posts: preventing at-risk students from falling through the cracks. As previously mentioned, my university assigns students a success coach only after they have gotten on academic probation or warning, and every time a freshman walks though my door the first week of Spring Semester after a disastrous Fall I think, "how could we have prevented this from happening in the first place?" Well, this summer, we are launching a pre-emptive strike. Over the course of the next six weeks, we are going through the transcripts of every incoming freshman to identify potentially at-risk students. That's right, this summer I am no longer simply Susan Marion: success coach- I am Susan Marion: private eye.

So what, exactly, am I looking for? Well, first I look at a student's SAT and ACT scores. Like most universities, my school does not admit students who score below a certain number on either the SAT or ACT, but some students are right on that number or perhaps 1 point higher on an ACT or ten to thirty points higher on an SAT. Any students whose scores fall into this range are potentially at risk. After I look at a student's total score, I assess the breakdown. If either their English or math score is low, it could potentially mean that he or she will have trouble in that area. If their writing score is low, it could foreshadow trouble writing college-level papers. If a student's GPA is high but his or her test scores are low, it could mean a few things. Perhaps this student suffers from test anxiety or has trouble performing under pressure. Perhaps his or her high school does not grade students rigorously, and therefore this high GPA could mask a fundamental deficit of comprehension in core areas.

While I'm looking at a student's high school grades, I pay particular attention to core academics. Sometimes a student's A's and B's are primarily in "non-core" academic classes such as art, music, and other electives. While these classes are important for a well-rounded education, students who struggle in core areas may have an especially difficult time during freshman year when so many of their required courses will be fundamental prerequisites in subjects like math and English. But it's not just how a student's grades break down by subject that can give me clues as to his or her potential chances for success in the first year of college. The arc of a student's high school career is also important. If a student did poorly during freshman year (or perhaps just the first semester of freshman year) of high school, it could speak to difficulty with transitions. And if transitioning from middle to high school threw him or her for a loop, going from high school to college is apt to be even more disorienting and difficult. Sometimes, the grade arc goes the opposite way. If a student did well during his or her freshman and sophomore years but then started to struggle, this could mean that this particular student has trouble staying motivated once school has lost that new car smell. Or, it could mean that he or she struggles with more difficult subjects and a larger course load, which could spell trouble in the areas of core comprehension and time management in college.

As I comb through these freshman files, I am building a list of potentially at-risk students to whom we are going to offer the option of working with a success coach in the fall. They will not be mandated to meet with a success coach, as are our students on academic probation or warning, but we will strongly recommend that they do. Some may end up meeting with their coaches biweekly just as our regular students do. Some may only need to meet once a week, or twice a month. Others, especially those for whom transitions in general are hard, may only require a few meetings until they get their sea legs. Ideally, we will simply be one more point of contact for these students during their first few months in college- one more strip of caulking, for the fewer cracks there are, the harder it is to fall through them.

Susan Marion is the Coordinator for Success Coaches at Tiffin University, in Tiffin, Ohio. She was instrumental in starting success coaching at the institution in 2007.  The program now has fifteen part-time success coaches and supports almost one hundred students who are at risk academically.