"Retaining At-Risk Students"

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February 2007

At the February 5, 2007 Quality Advocates meeting, four panelists discussed characteristics of at-risk students and strategies for retaining them at Penn State.  Panelists included: W. Terrell Jones, Vice Provost for Educational Equity;  Angela Linse, Executive Director and Associate Dean, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence;  Curtiss Porter, Chancellor, Penn State Greater Allegheny; and Eric White, Executive Director and Associate Dean of Advising, Division of Undergraduate Studies. The session was moderated by Louise Sandmeyer, Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment.

Why Focus on At-Risk Students?

In light of the University’s land-grant mission, Curtiss Porter pointed to the inherent need to serve first generation and minority students and,with the changing demographics of

We need to be thinking of ways that institutions will be able to reach out beyond their current configuration to get not only to the older student but also to the younger students. What are the tentacles of Penn State University that ought to be reaching into the elementary, secondary, and high schools to assure successful students?
Curtiss Porter

Pennsylvania, i.e., slow population growth and a growing number of minorities, the number of at-risk students will only increase. Jones reiterated that demographic changes within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will affect the composition of incoming students to the University. Curtiss PorterMany students of color will come from areas of high segregation. Nationally, Pennsylvania has four of the forty cities with the most segregated K-12 environments (Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and York), and many of the high schools in these areas are not able to meet the No Child Left Behind mandates. Porter suggested there is a need to approach the issue of at-risk students in a proactive, rather than a reactive manner, and cited a recent article by a Penn State professor, which called for changes in policy-making to improve outcomes for black males.1 Eric White pointed out that many students who are at-risk don’t see themselves as at-risk and may be reluctant to ask for help, so it is up to the University to seek out and help these students. According to White, initiatives that the University takes to help at-risk students can also benefit other groups of students, thereby increasing the chance of successful outcomes for all students.

And remember, we use that phrase ‘at risk’, but I don’t think students define themselves that way and don’t necessarily see themselves that way.
Eric White

Terrell Jones noted that students who are not at risk have characteristics such as excellent academic preparation, adequate financial support, being of a traditional age, and having an external support system (see Jones’ presentation for full listing). Jones also pointed to non-cognitive factors that influence student success, such as positive self-concepts, having realistic short- and long-term goals, and leadership experience.

What is Happening at Penn State?

Continual feedback from faculty, advisors or others, early intervention, and students connecting with others were three common themes that emerged from the discussion.  

One of the best counters to exclusive educational environments is to get to know your students … It reduces the anonymity and produces some of the effects of “we think you belong here and we’re going to do what we can to help you.”
            Angela Linse

According to Angela Linse, research shows that the two most important factors affecting student learning are student interaction with faculty and interaction with other students. Linse encouraged faculty to alter their pedagogies to make their classrooms more inclusive (see presentation). Angela LinseLinse suggested that providing feedback early and often helps students identify their academic strengths and weaknesses. To achieve this, faculty can structure their courses to help students track their own progress. Linse also recommended that faculty foster collaboration in the classrooms by using activities that require students to work together, requiring students to complete activities that move them beyond their social circle, and providing opportunities for peer evaluation. In addition, Linse suggested that faculty connect with students as individuals by learning their names, requiring students to visit during office hours, and asking questions to learn about students’ experiences. The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence is available to work with faculty and other instructors to help improve learning.

We have always tended to frontload all our of students programs for freshmen [in the first week]. It may be that in order to be successful, particularly with some of the students we are talking about who are at-risk,  what we need to do is to anticipate the course of the semester or the course of a year and start talking about how we provide these services and reinforce these services over and over.
                        W. Terrell Jones

At Penn State Greater Allegheny, several programs and process improvements have been developed to identify and address the needs of first generation students. One improvement has been to identify students who submit admissions or other paperwork late and implement new processes to help students with this paperwork. Another success at the campus has been the program run by the Center for Academic and Career Excellence (ACE), a project which provides at-risk students with support services. Students in the ACE program graduate at a rate twenty percent higher than other students.

White pointed to the critical link between academic advising and retention of at-risk students and discussed the importance of both an institutional support system and a personal support system for students. Academic advisors can help to identify student strengths and weaknesses, and encourage students to follow their strengths and remediate their weaknesses. Both Jones and White identified the need for at-risk students to be able to set realistic and achievable goals and to receive advising, especially during the first year.

White recommended strengthening or improving several policies/programs which might result in better outcomes for at-risk students:

  • Ensure that all students go through the FTCAP program, so that they can build appropriate first semester schedules, talk with advisors about their goals, and learn about the culture of the University
  • Assure that all students have primary advisors, in line with Faculty Senate policy
  • Provide early feedback on academic performance, maybe even before the middle of the semester
  • Make better use of eLion, especially the academic success module
  • Academic advising personnel can partner with others throughout the University

White and JonesJones also recommended several other interventions for at-risk students (specific recommendations can be found in Jones’ presentation):

  • Freshman seminars
  • Begin preparing students for college earlier
  • More financial aid for first-generation low-income students
  • Restructure first year advising.

For persons interested in hearing the full discussion, an audio file of the Quality Advocates meeting is available from the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment. Contact the Office at 863-8721 to request a copy of the file.


1Harper, S. R. (2006). Reconceptualizing reactive policy responses to Black male college achievement:
Implications from a national study. Focus: Magazine of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 34(6), 14-15.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.