The blind spot in many student success initiatives—and what one school did about it

Most universities have spent decades investing in support resources for both their highest- and lowest-risk students. For example, so-called “high flyer programming,” including undergraduate research opportunities, honors colleges, study abroad, and living-learning communities is often sought out by high-performing students. Meanwhile, students with common risk signs (first generation, low test scores, remediation needs, etc.) are often given extra resources as well.

The challenge is to engage students traditionally left out of these programs.

While students in the middle of the preparedness spectrum might not show obvious signs of risk in their first term or two, they often encounter problems later in their academic career—when faculty are uniquely positioned to help. But without experience or established relationships with faculty, these students might not be willing to reach out for the assistance they require.

Faculty leaders at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder) set out to tackle this issue, hoping to help unengaged students build greater confidence and academic direction in the first year.

The CU Boulder Faculty Assembly strategically retargeted its faculty-student mentoring program with over 100 participating faculty members to reach students in the “engagement gap.”

About 50% of first-year students at the institution live in a living-learning community called a Residential Academic Program (RAP), which are designed to convene students around a common academic theme with faculty guidance. Assembly leaders decided to focus mentoring activities on the other 50% of first-year students, proactively reaching out during the summer and asking the residential advisors in their dormitories to refer students to the mentoring program during their first few weeks.

The program then matches students with faculty mentors based on a detailed sign-up form that includes students’ interests, major plans, and risk indicators (such as intent to work full-time or off-campus).

Faculty mentors hold weekly “fireside chats” around common academic and nonacademic obstacles that students tend to face during their first year. They are armed with a week-by-week topic syllabus and guidance on when to refer difficult questions to specialists. 

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