Supporting At-Risk Students By Tracking Involvement

Research about colleges and universities shows that the majority of students who withdraw from an institution do so for reasons other than struggling with academics: students who leave are often in good academic standing.

“Students are more likely to become committed to the institution and, therefore stay, when they come to understand that the institution is committed to them. There is no ready programmatic substitute for this sort of commitment. Programs cannot replace the absence of high quality, caring and concerned faculty and staff.” – Vincent Tinto

Part of committing to students is identifying and understanding who they are and becoming familiar with their stories and lived experiences. Students who feel connected outside of the classroom – to student affairs professionals and student leaders – are more likely to create meaningful experiences and feel supported during their college career.


As enrollment continues to grow at universities and student affairs professionals develop intentional practices to help keep them there, graduation and attainment rates still remain low. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59% of full-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree in 2006 graduated by 2012.

Now, institutions are doing their best to reach out to students before they arrive to campus and register for classes. Among students who enroll, professionals recognize the importance of identifying students with characteristics of being ‘at-risk’, or who are the students who decide to leave due to one or more factors.

What Institutions Need to Support At-Risk Students

Professionals at institutions need to revamp their strategies when it comes to supporting at-risk students. The ever-changing modern college student is entering institutions with more stressors and pressure than ever before.

“Most students, especially those who start college with two or more characteristics associated with early departure, benefit from early interventions and sustained attention at various transition points in their educational journey.” – George Kuh

Each year, professionals need to renew and strengthen partnerships across campus to identify and assess the needs of the incoming class. Whether you’re just starting to think about this on your own, or you’re a retention and persistence pro, reviewing how to create successful relationships and communication between departments on campus is a crucial factor in supporting students.

Defining Student Success & At-Risk Students

What constitutes student success? How do administrators define ‘at-risk’ students? How are they identified? What does student success and persistence look like for at-risk students?

Student affairs professionals should be able to answer these questions, even if they don’t think they directly work with an at-risk student population. Understanding characteristics of each entering class for all student affairs functional areas can help create a better strategy to retention – and help other departments who may feel responsible for supporting at-risk students on their own, for example, professionals who work in multicultural affairs, veteran student services, and disability services.


Identifying Strong Indicators of Persistence

New research continues to support the idea that student’s sense of belonging and resilience are strong predictors of persistence more than GPA, socioeconomic status, or whether their parents attended college. Predicators of student success are different for every campus and the first step of identifying these will help support at-risk students.

Although characteristics like income level and being first-generation cannot necessarily be changed, mindset can. Student affairs professionals have an impact on the way students think: how they engage with others, encourage diverse viewpoints, and offer a different perspective on college completion.

Angela Lee Duckworth, psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, talks about grit amongst 7th graders in her TED Talk. Although not college students, developing resilience before college can increase retention.

Changing mindset relates back to a students sense of resilience. Resilience or ‘grit’ is the way a student bounces back from a tough situation, how they manage distractions, and continue to persevere day in and day out.

Angela explains how she completed a study with high school juniors and tracked their high school graduation,

“A few years ago I started a study with Chicago Public Schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take ‘grit’ questionnaires and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate. Turns out, that ‘grittier’ kids were significantly more likely to graduate – even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure. Things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe they felt at school.”

This characteristic of resilience is important for students at-risk of dropping out. Even more, developing resilience with a strong network of social support can help students increase their sense of belonging which can lead to an overall feeling of well-being.

Tracking At-Risk Student Involvement

With one of the top indicators of persistence being a student’s sense of belonging, it’s more important than ever that colleges and universities track student involvement. Social support in college, or students relationships to individuals, organizations, and the community at-large, is, as mentioned, a large factor in students feeling connected to an institution.

Tracking student involvement has a number of benefits, including being able to understand what types of students attend events and programs on campus.


Determine the appropriate metrics to measure student involvement for at-risk students. Coming to a consensus across departments can help focus on what really matters when tracking students and their level of engagement.

A few questions you can aim to answer could be, “How many events have they attended? How frequently are they involved? What types of events have they been involved with?”

Keep in mind that reviewing multiple metrics – not just one – will give you the whole picture.


Determine how often you’ll review metrics with a team of professionals with hard data that gives insights as to what student involvement looks like on campus. Scheduling times at the beginning of the year for weekly or bi-weekly meetings holds your team accountable to hold conversations surrounding transparency of data and what’s really working.

Look at past data of when the most at-risk students decide to leave college. Determine how you’ll change efforts or implement new initiatives around these time periods.

Measurement Tools & Assessment

Use a variety of assessment methods to fully understand at-risk students on campus. Using card-swipe technology gives your team the ability to utilize data in new ways and generate new ideas to connect with students. Following an assessment cycle helps to create a culture of continuous assessment – and a culture where students feel like professionals are fully committed to them.

Consider how you’re going to keep track of the information. Tracking information needs to be collaborative. Break down information silos and find a streamlined process and software tool that works best.

Holding Meaningful Conversations

The concerns surrounding retention at institutions of higher education is a complex issue; it’s affected by a number of factors that aren’t always obvious.

After understanding and identifying at-risk students and using student involvement data, it’s important to listen to students’ individual stories of navigating life while attending an institution. Asking questions to specific areas like navigating finances, social support, academics, involvement – and asking direct questions related to degree attainment all help in making a student feel a stronger sense of belonging.

In what ways do you hold conversations surrounding student retention on campus?

How often do you complete an assessment cycle in relation to retention?

What does collaborative efforts look like in student affairs?

Share your thoughts with us @CheckImHere! Thanks for reading.


Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: a developmental theory. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-308.

Barton, D. (2015). The most important factor in a college student’s success.

Kuh, et al. (2006). What matters most to student success: a review of the literature.

Tinto, V. (1987). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham (she/hers) is a former Community Engagement Manager at Modern Campus Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.