June 28, 2017

Supporting “At-Risk” Students — A Model Program

The first clue that a student is troubled can come from various directions. A residence adviser may realize that one of his students is not getting up for meals or is having friction with his roommates. A parent may call to say that a child has stopped telephoning home. Or an instructor may notice that a student’s class work has suddenly declined. On the men’s campus of Yeshiva University in New York, such indications will get attention from a support program that is structured to make sure no warning signs fall through the cracks, and that all will be responded to quickly and appropriately.

The program has two prongs. The first involves administrators who deal with student life and services. The group is headed by the director of housing and residence life, who keeps a list of all students who someone (most often, resident advisers or parents) has reported may be having problems — for example, signs of depression, or a significant conflict with someone on campus, or who appear not to be taking care of themselves. Other members are the dean of students, the head of the counseling center, the disabilities counselor, the director of learning support,  the assistant director of housing, the dean for student discipline, and the campus chaplain. Twice a month — at some times of the year, every week — the group meets to monitor existing cases and plan a response to new ones. (Representatives of the counseling and disabilities offices consult on mental health issues and response plans, but do not share information they may have about a particular student unless there is a consensus that a situation may be acutely dangerous.)

The second prong involves those who are concerned with students’ academic lives — teachers, department chairs, faculty advisers, and academic deans. Shortly before the midpoint of each semester, faculty are asked to tell their deans about any student who is floundering in a course or seems to be having any other problems. Since academic difficulties often correlate with personal ones, that information is shared at a mid-semester meeting that brings together delegated assistant deans and directors of student academic advising with members of the student services team headed by the housing director. A similar joint meeting takes place at the end of each semester, after exams, to look at students whose grades have put them on academic probation or whose averages have dropped by a half grade point or more.

Because the support system can only be as good as the information it gets, it puts considerable effort into educating and training the rest of the campus community on how and where to provide that information. Resident advisers, in particular, are given special training at orientation and throughout the academic year.

Intervention can be as simple as a single conversation establishing that the problem is not serious (the reason a boy stopped calling home was that he lost his cell phone, which has now been replaced). Or, in a truly urgent situation, a student may be referred for a mandatory evaluation by the counseling service. But wherever on that scale a case may fall, the aim of the at-risk support program is the same: to do everything possible to help the student remain in school and continue his education. “The primary focus of this program,” says Victor Schwartz, the university’s dean of students, “is to support student success, not to avoid liability.”

Those who administer the support program are well aware that they have a great advantage in Yeshiva University’s small size (approximately 1,200 students on the men’s campus) and the fact that the great majority of students live at or very near the university (70 percent in dorms, another 15 to 20 percent in private apartments in the immediate neighborhood).  Clearly, emulating its approach at larger schools with more scattered student bodies would be a huge challenge. “I’m not sure it’s undoable,” Schwartz said, “but it is formidable.” But while it may not always be easy to apply them, the principles of the Yeshiva program — casting a wide net for information, regular training for those who can provide it, systematic procedures to assure that every case is dealt with, and a commitment to help the student and not just get a potential problem off campus — are valid and necessary in institutions of any size.