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Sorting, Supporting, Connecting, and Transforming: Intervention Strategies for Students at Risk.

The author reviews the literature on strategies for serving students considered to be at risk because they need assistance to succeed academically and socially at the college level. After reviewing the changing demographic and functional definitions of students at risk and providing an overview of why such students need special services from colleges, the author uses Beatty-Guenter's (1994) typology to provide a research and practice framework for current intervention strategies. Sorting strategies attempt to divide the student body into meaningful subsets for intervention. Supporting strategies strive to ease students' everyday problems with academic life. Connecting strategies promote bonding between the student and others at the college to motivate continued enrollment. Transforming strategies seek to overcome barriers that might prevent students from achieving their potential. A summary of characteristics that distinguish successful intervention programs and strategies concludes this review.

Students at risk were at one time considered a special group needing specialized help. Current definitions of the student at risk, however, describe the majority of students in American community colleges. Minorities, who are overrepresented at the community college level, are described as being at risk for at least two reasons. First, although they are graduating in increasing numbers from high school, fewer are attending college. Second, they are earning a small fraction of college degrees (Rendon & Thomas, 1990).

In the 1990 report, Serving Underprepared Students, the League for Innovation in the Community College points out that although minorities are overrepresented in the category described as "at risk," great diversity now exists in who belongs in this category, which can include recent high school graduates, returning adults, high school dropouts, illiterate adults, immigrants, and students with limited English proficiency. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), however, objects to demographic definitions of students at risk and offers one that is more functional (Neilsen, 1992). The AACC maintains that students at risk have traditionally been identified by observable characteristics (such as non-English-speaking, handicapped, minority); by descriptors of their condition (such as displaced homemaker, dislocated worker); or by their status within the academic institution (such as student on probation, student with low basic skills). In the AACC's view, a more functional definition of being at risk describes the relations between the resources a student brings to the educational experience and the demands the educational program makes on the student. Similarly, Roueche and Roueche (1994) characterize the student at risk as one who possesses academic, social, and economic problems that challenge his or her success in college.

Why Serve Students at Risk?

Some have asked whether students who are underprepared, low-skilled, or learning disabled actually belong in community colleges or if they should be routed to other alternatives such as employment or the military. However, routing students to employment or the military does not address the problem of being underprepared; students are more commonly graduating from high school with academic skills below the twelfth-grade level. Furthermore, higher reading and literacy skills are being required even in blue-collar jobs. Not only is education important to providing a skilled labor force; it also provides socialization into the mainstream of society. Few alternatives, outside of the community college, exist for these students (Almeida, 1991). Thus, Kempner and Connett (1990) argue that we should promote an educational system that serves everyone and fulfills the American ideal of justice.

In the case of students with disabilities, social justice in educational institutions is mandated by federal legislation. For example, Section 504 of the Disabilities Act of 1973 stipulates that no qualified handicapped person, by reason of their handicap, can be denied participation or benefits, or be discriminated against in any program receiving federal funds. In higher education, this law applies to admission and to participation in a program or activities. Section 504 requires that accommodations be provided such as note-takers, tutors, extended time on tests, and alternative testing procedures. Also, Section 118 of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act of 1990 reinforces the Rehabilitation Act by mandating nondiscriminatory accommodations to include equal access in recruitment, enrollment, and placement activities and equal access to a full range of programs (Asselin, 1993).

Whether driven by the American ideal of justice or by legal mandates, the community college, with its open-door policy, cultivates the highest interaction with (and hence increases its responsibility for) the student at risk.

Sorting, Supporting, Connecting, and Transforming

The aim of intervention strategies designed to assist students at risk is to retain students so that they can accomplish their educational goals. Beatty-Guenter (1994) proposes a typology of retention strategies at a community college. This typology clarifies the commonalities in various retention strategies and thus provides a framework for research and practice. The four types of retention strategies identified are as follows: (a) sorting (of students into homogeneous subgroups), (b) supporting (of students in dealing with life's problems or responsibilities), (c) connecting (of students with each other and the institution), and (d) transforming (of students and the community college). All efforts to assist students at risk can be placed within this typology.


Strategies described under this heading attempt to divide the student body into meaningful subsets. Students are identified so that appropriate interventions can be applied.

Assessment and Placement. Pre-enrollment assessment is required at 71% of the community colleges in the United States (Cook, 1996). Assessment programs are important in identifying student capabilities so that they can be placed, advised, and counseled appropriately. In turn, students can achieve some level of success and experience less frustration than they have in their prior educational environments (Nielsen, 1991). Some states that mandate entry-level assessment and placement, such as Texas, Florida, and New Jersey, are reporting improved student persistence and achievement (Roueche & Roueche, 1994). Although students often react negatively to assessment and monitoring, one study demonstrates that when students are given an explanation of the benefits of assessment and monitoring, they are often more receptive to the process (Bach, Bernstein, & Vaughters, 1992).

Mandatory assessment, under certain conditions, may have its most negative impact on minority students. A 1986 study of 5,139 first-time minority freshmen in Tennessee's community college system showed that 78% were enrolled in developmental studies as a result of mandatory testing. However, these students were confined to developmental courses and could not earn college credits until all developmental program requirements were met. An analysis of attrition showed that attrition was higher for those enrolled in developmental studies, and 13% higher for minorities than for White students (Riggs, Davis, & Wilson, 1990).

Assessment test scores are also used as a strategy to predict whether a student may be at risk of failing academically or dropping out after being placed (Nielson & Chambers, 1989; Santa Rita, 1996). However, a student's intent (earning college credits versus personal enrichment), motivation, and goal orientation, among other factors, have also been noted as important in predicting persistence and academic success (Lange & Fundis, 1994; Santa Rita, 1996).

Early Warning and Academic Alert. Other strategies can be used to sort out students who may be at risk. In a study of 1,140 first-time students at Niagara County Community College, four background characteristics were predictive of attrition in the first year. Low high school grade point average (GPA), being a student in the age range of 20-24, being a minority other than Asian, and attending part-time were predictive of attrition (Feldman, 1993).

Some community colleges have an "academic-alert system" to send routine letters to students who are not maintaining satisfactory progress (Mendoza & Corzo, 1996; Beatty-Guenter, 1993). Irvine Valley College conducted a two-year study of the effectiveness of midsemester, early alert follow-up procedures designed to help first-semester freshmen having trouble in their classes. The study found that although none of the outcome measures--cumulative GPA, course pass rate, grade points earned, or college retention after two semesters--differed significantly among the different treatment groups, those in the group that received early alert letters had the highest end-of-year retention (81.3%) for full-time students whereas both advisor contact and early alert letter groups had greater end-of-year retention for part-time students (Rudman, 1992).

Because faculty are being encouraged to use assessment in their classrooms, suggested faculty training in assessment is essential. Some areas for training include the following: selecting standardized tests in English, mathematics, and reading; judging the appropriateness of standardized tests for students of different cultures; checking for test reliability and validity; and using interviews and other qualitative techniques for student assessment (McGrath, 1996; Rendon & Thomas, 1990).


Strategies in this category strive to ease students' problems with aspects of everyday life. They include but are not limited to assistance in dealing with finances, home and family, transportation, on-campus day care, financial aid, parking and transportation, campus security arrangements, and college health and wellness programs (Beatty-Guenter, 1994). Attrition studies have shown that students at the community college most often stop out or drop out due to the pressures of meeting the challenges of everyday life (Bonham & Luckie, 1993; Conklin, 1993; Geddes & Golbetz, 1992).

As part of the National Adult Education study, 4,340 women attending community college were surveyed about the barriers in their everyday life that kept them from taking a full college load. The greatest mean number of barriers existed for women between the ages of 27 and 35. They included finances, grades, work schedules, transportation programs, inconvenient times of classes, time to study, lack of child-care, and spouse's attitude (Feiger, 1996). In this same study, interviews were also conducted in which women reported a lack of time to study as a major problem for them. One quarter of the women interviewed also said that negative attitudes from their spouses kept them from taking more courses.

Some colleges are trying to reduce these negative effects for women. For example, Santa Monica College in California has been noted for attending to the needs of women. Among services for them are a child-care center for preschoolers, a CARE program that provides child-care funds for single parents on welfare and financial aid, and a women's transition club for mature women making the transition back to college. Santa Monica College also has a women's college that offers various general education classes with a focus on women's issues, history, and literature (Feiger, 1996).


Strategies listed under this heading promote bonding between the student and the institution. This attachment often promotes a sense of community that in turn motivates the student to remain enrolled at the college.

Orientation. Social and academic integration and involvement in college culture are critical in ensuring the retention and academic achievement of students at risk. The inability of most community college students to participate in traditional college activities places them at risk (Douzenis, 1994; Tinto). Participation in an orientation program has been found to be critical to students' success and to their sense of connection with the institution. These programs, however, have often been neglected at community colleges. Johnson Community College, on the other hand, holds a model program of orientation. It claims that being flexible has been the key to their successful orientation program. Its program runs daily for eight weeks during the summer and allows students to apply for admissions, take the assessment tests, go on a campus tour, and register, all in the same day. Also, specific programs for student athletes, international students, and adult learners are provided (Cook, 1996).

Peer-Assisted Learning. The Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) project at American River College (ARC) in Sacramento, California, was developed to improve retention rates among underrepresented students in math and science classes. The project involves 24 paid Learning Assistants (LAs) who successfully complete the targeted courses and who participate in a training program about small-group peer-assisted learning. Among findings in an evaluation of the program was that LAs experienced a more positive attitude and stronger sense of connection to the college (American River College, 1993).

Mentoring. Mentoring programs are also a successful strategy for connecting the student with institutional representatives, other students, and community members. For example, a major element in a retention program for Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian students in Prince George's Community College is individual support provided by mentors. All mentors are drawn from the college's full-time and part-time faculty, staff, and administrators. The mentor-with-student matching and mentor training focuses on developing positive relationships with minority students. Workshop training has also emphasized fostering supportive classroom environments for minority students and appropriate support-service referrals. To evaluate the program's impact on minorities, a study was conducted that examined differences in retention between two groups of Black students--those who participated in the mentoring program (participant group) and those who did not (comparison group). It also evaluated the differences in retention between the Black participant group and White students at the college who did not participate in the program (comparison group). Among the findings, 66% of the Black students in the participant group successfully completed 100% of their credit courses, equaling the percentage of the first-time, degree-seeking White comparison group. In the Black comparison group 51% completed 100% of their credit courses. Eighty percent of the participant group, students who were mentees in fall 1988, returned to the college in spring 1989. In contrast, 73% of the Black comparison group and 83% of the White comparison returned (James, 1991).

Learning Communities. Robert E. Ritschel (1995) critically maintains that whereas the classroom was at one time a community of students with shared experiences, the classroom at the community college today is composed of individuals with nothing more in common than if they were all waiting at a bus stop. Given the inability of most of these students to participate in traditional college activities (Douzenis, 1994), Ritschel maintains that the community in community college cannot be applied to the institution as a whole, but may be found only in each individual classroom.

One way of overcoming the lack of community is Supplemental Instruction (SI), which increases academic achievement and retention through collaborative learning and is a useful strategy in promoting a learning community and a connection between peers. In SI, regularly scheduled, out-of-class, peer-facilitated sessions are held in which students have the opportunity to discuss, process, and interact by reading, studying, and preparing for examinations (Martin, Blanc & Arendale, 1996). Moreover, studies have shown that learning communities increase coherence in what is being learned, promote intellectual interaction, and help promote academic and social connections with faculty and students (Naughton, 1993; Tinto, Russo, & Kadel-Taras, 1996). A learning community can be formed through creating the cohort effect by forming study groups in class as well as by creating block programming for students with common courses (Beatty-Guenter, 1994). McGrath (1996) asserts that for students at risk, successful integration into learning communities sometimes involves a renegotiation of their identity as some students may find that the academic culture conflicts with their home culture.


Strategies that seek to transform students at risk aim to help them overcome barriers that might keep them from achieving their potential. It is also important, however, to consider strategies that transform institutions so that they may facilitate success for the student at risk.

Remedial and Developmental Courses. The term remedial at one time was used to describe courses that strengthen basic skill deficiencies, and the term developmental was used to describe courses that develop broader skills and attitudes that may not necessarily lead to a particular program of study. However, these terms are now more often used interchangeably as the distinction between the two has become blurred (Roueche & Roueche, 1993).

Specialized courses in reading, writing, math, and study skills are being offered at more and more community colleges with at least 90% of the two-year colleges offering some kind of remedial course work (Raisman, 1990). The changes in student course-taking patterns from 1972 to 1993 has been documented (Adelman, 1995). This documentation reveals that in this 21-year period, the number of community college students that took remedial courses in English or writing increased by 51.7% as compared to 26.8% at comprehensive colleges and 3.8% at liberal arts colleges. And, the number of community college students that took remedial reading courses increased by 55.5% as compared to 28.7% at comprehensive colleges and 4.9% at liberal arts colleges.

Some colleges have found that even in these remedial and developmental courses, certain students need help beyond what is offered. For example, in the Technology Intervention and Support Program (TISP) for associate's degree students at Kent State, individualized attention beyond regular developmental and remedial courses is provided for students who have the greatest academic disadvantage in English and math. Two intervention specialists, one in English and reading and one in mathematics, prepare Individually Prescribed Programs (IPPs) for each participant to correct his or her deficiencies in these basic skills (Barton, 1993).

Roueche and Roueche (1993) maintain that rigorous and useful evaluations of remedial programs' effect on academic achievement and long-term retention are lacking. However, the findings of one study that included 1,126 students enrolled in developmental mathematics, 1,011 students enrolled in developmental reading, and 292 students enrolled in developmental English courses at a community college in Kansas revealed that students in developmental reading and English courses showed significant gains on standardized tests near the end of their remedial courses; developmental reading students graduated at slightly more than one-half that of the student body as a whole; and developmental English students' graduation rates approximated those of students college-wide, whereas developmental math students graduated at a rate nearly twice the college-wide rate (Seybert & Soltz, 1992).

Student Success Courses. The need for socialization within the academic culture is a common theme in research and recommendations that deal with minority and other students at risk (Bower, 1996; Rotkis & McDaniel, 1993; Valadez, 1993). Among factors that place minority students in need of this socialization are (a) students' beliefs about valued adult roles and about the part played by education in structuring access to those roles; (b) students' preparation, which involves both developing expectations about higher education and participating in experiences that approximate going to college; and (c) students' modes of college going, which distinguish students who follow traditional full-time patterns of college attendance and those who enter college with adult roles and responsibilities (Richardson & Skinner, 1992).

Research has shown that in addition to orientation in a student's first-year, a student success course, sometimes called an extended orientation seminar, has positive effects on retention and degree completion if taken in the first year and has dramatic effects on academically at-risk students in particular (Roueche & Roueche, 1993). Cuseo and Barefoot (1996) reviewed proceedings from Freshman Year Experience Conferences, textbooks designed for freshmen orientation courses, and surveys conducted by the National Resource Center to provide a taxonomy of the topics most frequently addressed in these courses. The content of these courses most often includes three general topics--the college experience, academic skill development, and life management. These courses provide the socialization usually lacking in students at risk and thus prepare them for academic success.

Advising and Counseling. Among strategies used for counseling are approaches that include motivation, locus of control, self-esteem, cognition, and metacognition (Beatty-Guenter, 1993). Rendon (1995) asserts, however, that some of the approaches and theories that have guided the thinking about student development may not be appropriate for many minority students. In a report on retention strategies for first-generation students in community colleges, she notes that institutions must assist students in overcoming psycho-social barriers such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, fear of failure, fear about being perceived as "stupid" or "lazy," anxiety and cultural separation, doubts about being "college material," trauma associated with making the transition to college, and unfamiliarity with higher education resulting in being intimidated by the system.

Some studies, however, have found that despite the need for counseling and support, some students at risk persist in the community college system simply due to personal resiliency (Laden, 1994).

Roueche and Roueche (1994) advocate directive counseling and placement strategies for working with students at risk. However, counseling departments are being cut back at a time when the need to provide counseling services for these students is increasing. Colleges are using a variety of methods to address the issue of insufficient funds. For example, some colleges are decreasing their services by eliminating personal counseling and focusing solely on academic and career advising. Others are referring students to community agencies, relying on the faculty to assist with academic advising, or both. Counseling departments are also increasingly turning to technology for help. College student databases are becoming available on personal computers, as are aptitude and interest inventories. Partnerships with the private sector have also proved to be helpful (Cvancara, 1997).

Faculty. Among strategies to enhance the role of faculty in assisting the student at risk are creating faculty development programs (Nielsen, 1991); encouraging faculty to change their perceptions and attitudes by recognizing the mission of the community college and by not viewing community college students in the same way as they view four-year students (Almeida, 1991); keeping the culturally diverse learner at the center of restructuring (Rendon, 1995); and incorporating multiple teaching and learning strategies (Almeida, 1991). Rendon (1995) asserts that institutional strategies to optimize learning for first-generation students in the community college include focusing on active and collaborative learning; infusing the curriculum with multicultural perspectives; actively engaging students with faculty; setting clear, high expectations; and providing for faculty development related to understanding, appreciating and working with culturally diverse students.

Government. Some states have legislation for programs designed specifically for institutions to help students at risk (Evans & Singley, 1996; Illinois Community College Board, 1997; Michigan State Department of Management and Budget, 1994). The state of Michigan has invested increasing funds to assist and retain their students at risk with $3,380,900 dispersed among their 29 community colleges in the 1994-1995 academic year. The state of Virginia provides another example of state efforts to transform institutions to help students at risk. Five inservice sessions were held for over 120 community college faculty in English and math, counselors, and administrators to prepare teams to return to their home colleges and present information to colleagues about serving students with disabilities (Asselin, 1993).

Partnerships. Collaborations with the community have been found to help in serving students at risk (Clark, 1993; Johnson-Sligar & Sligar, 1992). The AACC's Beacon Initiative was designed to assist community, technical, and junior colleges across the country in building community beyond the campus by collaborating with employers and agencies to help students at risk succeed. Under the Beacon Project umbrella, many individual projects are carded out collaboratively at each college with the goal of providing seamless contact with employers. In a report that reviews projects between six community colleges and their collaborators in Oregon, the process for building partnerships is highlighted (Nielson, 1992).

What Makes Programs and Intervention Strategies Successful?

In their book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Student At-Risk in the Open-Door College, Roueche and Roueche (1993) reference two national studies. The first study synthesizes 30 years of literature on remedial and developmental education (Cross, 1976). Five major conclusions were made and stated as recommendations for designing effective programs: (a) skills training must be integrated into the other college experiences of the student; (b) cognitive training must be integrated with the social and emotional development of the student; (c) staff working with remedial students should be selected for their interest and commitment as well as for their knowledge about learning problems; (d) degree credit should be granted for remedial classes; and (e) remediation should be approached with flexibility and open mindedness.

In the second study, a national survey was conducted by the University of Texas (Roueche, Baker, & Roueche, 1984). The data revealed that developmental programs reporting 50% or better retention had many elements in common. They included having strong administrative support; mandatory counseling and placement; structured courses; award of credit; flexible course completion strategies; multiple learning approaches such as using volunteer instructors and peer tutors; a system of monitoring of student behaviors; an interface with subsequent courses; and program evaluation.

Roueche and Roueche (1994) recommend the following policies based on evaluating the common elements of 12 award-winning programs that serve students at risk: pre-enrollment activities should be proactive; orientation should be required of entering students; late registration should be abolished; basic skills assessment and placement should be mandatory; dual enrollment in basic skills and regular academic courses should be eliminated; working students should be strongly encouraged to reduce academic loads; more comprehensive financial aid programs should be provided; safety nets with faculty mentors and peers support should be established; problem-solving and literacy activities should be provided in all courses; and student and program outcomes should be regularly evaluated and results disseminated.

This review of recent journal and ERIC publications of programs and intervention strategies for students at risk is not exhaustive. Also, the headings under which strategies are listed are not meant to establish false divisions. Conceptually the headings of sorting, supporting, connecting, and transforming, assist in understanding the programs and strategies used with students at risk. In practice, however, this literature review demonstrates that when these conceptual categories are integrated so that strategies attend to both cognitive and psycho-social needs, are structured and directive, and use nontraditional teaching and learning methods, students at risk are served most effectively.


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Almeida, D. A. (1991). Do underprepared students and those with lower academic skills belong in the community college? Community College Review, 18(4), 28-32.

American River College. (1993). Beacon Project. Student Catalyst Program--Peer Assisted Learning. Sacramento: American River College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 355 995)

Asselin, S. B. (1993). Enhancing faculty awareness and knowledge of students with disabilities. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 17(3), 283-289.

Bach, S., Bernstein, G., & Vaughters, B. (1992, June 21-24). ADVISE. A catalyst for change in student advising and student tracking. Paper presented at the Summer Institute--Creating Culture for Institutional Effectiveness, Vail, CO. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 345 825)

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Bonham, L. A., & Luckie, J. A. I. (1993). Taking a break in schooling: Why community college students stop out. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 17(3), 257-270.

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Johnson-Sligar, T., & Sligar, S. R. (1992, May 21-24). Collaborating with rehabilitation centers for at-risk students. Revised version of a paper presented at the Biannual Conference of the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, Chicago, IL. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 351 050)

Kempner, K., & Connett, D. (1990). Social responsibility in community colleges: Rethinking the commitment to alternative education. Innovative Higher Education, 14(2), 83-92.

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Tinto, V., Russo, P. E., & Kadel-Taras, S. (1996). Learning communities and student involvement in the community college: Creating environments of inclusion and success. In J. N. Hankin (Ed.), The community college: Opportunity and access for America's first-year students. Columbia, SC: National Research Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition, University of South Carolina. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 393 486)

Valadez, J. (1993). Cultural capital and its impact on the aspirations of nontraditional community college students. Community College Review, 21(3), 30-43.

Leonor Xochitl Perez is a doctoral student in higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles (email to
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Author:Perez, Leonor Xochitl
Publication:Community College Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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