Student Success Insights Blog

Understanding advisors' subjective views about objective student assessments

by Julia Ridgely

Julia RidgelyJulia Ridgely, Director

The New York Times article "Who Gets to Graduate?" profiles a successful University of Texas program aimed at students identified as high risk by demographic factors and SAT scores.

Going against the conventional emphasis on academic and financial assistance, the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP) focuses on alleviating students' self-sabotaging fears and feelings of alienation.

A hallmark of the TIP program is that it doesn't identify itself as a program for at-risk students, but rather a community for high achievers that provides access to tools for success, including smaller class size and peer mentoring.

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Differing opinions about risk stratification

The article reminded me of the different perspectives we hear from advisors about SSC's risk stratification, which identifies students as high, medium, or low risk based on a predictive model that includes both academic and non-academic factors. The risk banding is not intended to be shown to students, but acts as a quick flag to identify students for outreach campaigns or prompt advisors to probe deeper for risks that may not be apparent from the usual go-to metrics like GPA and credit accumulation.

Even so, some advisors reject the very premise of risk forecasting. They argue that a model based on the past performance of large numbers of students can't provide adequate insight into the factors that cause a specific student to experience short-term roadblocks (like family or personal problems) or long-term success (like goals and persistence).

Given that advisors are by nature optimistic problem-solvers who consider it their job to help students achieve their dreams, this isn't surprising. Yet even these advisors will admit that, for some students, there comes a moment when it’s time to consider an alternative approach, or even a different major. In these cases, advisors tell us they welcome an objective assessment or—as one put it—"confirmation for the student that the risk is real and that I’m not just making it up."

Knowing when to intervene

So when is the right time—if ever—to share a risk forecast with a student? The answer may lie in the reasons behind a student's self-assessment of future success or failure. When I asked a STEM advisor to characterize students who'd struggled in her program as seeing the glass half full or half empty, she gave a frank but disheartening answer: “"It depends whether they're male or female." This is consonant with the well-studied phenomenon of stereotype threat, the tendency of students to internalize conventional wisdom like "girls aren’t as good at math."

But what about students at the other end of the spectrum, whose unquenchable optimism—or emotional attachment to a specific major or career—is at odds with their academic performance? Here, advisors’ answers vary according to the urgency and import of the decision. Those in pre-professional programs with selective admission are quicker to pull the trigger because of the clear short- and long-term consequences for a specific goal: certification in a professional specialty.

What do you think?

What does “the writing on the wall” look like for a student in a more general field of study, or with a more vague career ambition? How do we balance the ethical case for early intervention with the risk of confirming students' fears about their own performance?

Whether you're an advisor or an administrator, we want to hear from you; your feedback will shape our continued development of SSC.

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Next, Check Out

We recently asked our Data Science Team—dedicated to building analytical tools and unlocking student success insights—to explain what they do and showcase their recent work on major switching. Read the Q&A.

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