Published on 2015/06/08
The EvoLLLution | Four Lessons Learned From Working with At-Risk Students
The secret to supporting the success of high-risk students is simply understanding their needs and contexts, and adapting to serve them better.

At Georgia State University, we have seen profound demographic shifts in recent years. Due to the recession’s particularly hard impact on Atlanta and rapid shifts in the region’s population, we saw a doubling of the number of low-income and first-generation students enrolled at the university between 2007 and 2014. This year, a full 59 percent of our undergraduates are Pell eligible, and the average Pell student comes from a household with an annual income of just $22,000 a year. During the same period that we were enrolling thousands of additional at-risk students, we were also increasing our graduation rates by 26 percent and graduating more and more students.

In fact, we now confer almost 1,800 more degrees annually than we did in 2007.

These two trends—rapid increases in the number of at-risk students enrolled accompanied by dramatic gains in graduation rates—rarely go hand-in-hand. As such, I am often asked what the “secret” is to succeeding with low-income, first-generation college students. While there is, as far as I know, no magic formula, there are several lessons that we have learned from our work with at-risk students in recent years.

1. It’s Not All About Academic Preparation

It is true that first-generation and low-income students are more likely to be the products of under-resourced and under-performing school systems prior to their enrollment in college. They will have lower test scores and lower high-school GPAs, on average, than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. This does not mean, though, that these students are destined to fail. In fact, by focusing on the inadequacies of K-12 preparation, those of us working in postsecondary education far too often divert our attention away from the profound obstacles to student success that we have erected in our universities.

2. We Underestimate the Importance of Institutional Know-How

There has been interesting sociological work done on the differences in parenting norms between middle-class and low-income families. Middle-class parents typically emphasize providing children with numerous structured social activities outside of the classroom—from summer camp and Scouting to soccer practice and ballet—that help students to learn to negotiate what they want and to secure what they need. Low-income parents, typically by necessity, often require their children to self-monitor or to be caregivers for siblings.

As a result, low-income, first-generation students are less likely to enter college having what sociologists refer to as “institutional know-how”—the knowledge of how to navigate complex bureaucracies, to secure necessary information, to diagnose when things go awry, and to ask for assistance in getting back on track.

3. Universities are Complex Bureaucracies

This will be a surprise to no one. Large public universities such as Georgia State offer over a hundred academic majors and more than a thousand courses. We have layers of policies, complex distributive requirements and myriad academic rules that can be difficult for even seasoned faculty members to understand. When low-income students enter these incredibly complex, arcane bureaucracies and come face-to-face with the multiple high-stakes choices that must quickly be made, they are at a distinct disadvantage. A single wrong choice of course or major can cost students thousands of dollars, delay their progress by semesters, and put them on a path to dropping out.

4. Postsecondary Education Can and Must Do Better

Universities can see incredible gains in the success rates of their low-income, first-generation students by simply helping students to navigate the complex systems that they have created. Georgia State has implemented a student tracking system that monitors registration daily and ensures that students are enrolling in courses that apply to their degree programs. It has developed a system of predictive analytics to advise students into majors that fit their interests and abilities. We are not expecting less of our students academically, but we are no longer expecting first-generation, low-income students to come to us knowing how to navigate the university and make well-informed decisions about matters that they have never experienced before. Over the past twelve months, our academic advisors have initiated more than 43,000 interventions with students, all aimed at helping the students make sound choices and stay on the path to graduation.

The results of this approach speak for themselves. The effects have been transformative. High-risk students are now graduating from Georgia State at rates comparable to their middle- and upper-class classmates, and at rates far above national norms.

Conclusion: Putting the Lessons Into Practice

Some critics have said that we are babying our students by helping them make these decisions. Students should be allowed to make their own mistakes—costly though they are—and to learn from them, or so the argument goes. For those who find this logic to be compelling, I simply ask that you be sure to live by it next spring as you prepare your income taxes. Remember not to rely on an accountant, tax preparer or even supporting software to guide you. The real value comes from trying to navigate the arcane complexities of our tax code and learning from the mistakes that you make, however costly they are.

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