ERIC Identifier: ED325033
Publication Date: 1990-09-00
Author: Jones, Dionne J. - Watson, Betty Collier
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education Washington DC.|
George Washington Univ. Washington DC.
"High Risk" Students and Higher Education: Future Trends.
Attrition is a major problem for American colleges and universities,
and efforts to retain students are stymied and made complex because an
increasing number of enrollees fit the socioeconomic and demographic profile
of "high-risk" students. This issue is critical for the nation as a whole,
because the increasing enrollment of high-risk students--minorities, females,
low-income, and disabled individuals--is expected to continue into the
High-risk students have a major impact on both institutions of higher
education and society in general. Specifically, attrition affects patterns
of funding, planning for facilities, and the long-term academic curricula
of institutions of higher education. Attrition affects the future labor
market, because students are unprepared for the required roles and responsibilities.
What causes attrition and risk? The answer to this seemingly simple
question is rather complex. Indeed, a number of academic, nonacademic,
and related factors are associated with attrition and risk. Academically,
it appears that all students do not receive equal preparation in elementary
and secondary schools. Moreover, the instructional approaches used by teachers
of high-risk students tend to be inefficient. On the other hand, nonacademic
factors associated with attrition and risk are generated by both teachers
and students. For instance, teachers' negative attitudes affect students'
self-esteem. Thus, many high-risk students develop low self-esteem and
begin to cooperate with systemic forces resulting in pregnancy, dropping
out, and delinquency.
To achieve success among high-risk students by the 21st century, a variety
of strategies must be implemented. Special retention needs of high-risk
students must be identified, and simultaneously institutions must be committed
to providing both financial and academic support. In addition, social support
through advising and counseling from faculty, the family, and peers is
a necessary part of this equation.
ARE HIGH-RISK STUDENTS AND NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS THE SAME?
Although the characteristics of high-risk students are sometimes correlated
with those of nontraditional students, the two concepts have different
denotations. The term "high risk" is a theoretical concept based on an
implicit assessment of the degree of negative risk associated with the
educational experience. "High-risk students" are minorities, the academically
disadvantaged, the disabled, and those of low socioeconomic status.
"Nontraditional students," on the other hand, is merely a reference
to the changing profile of students that emerged during the late 1960s
and early 1970s as a result of demographic and sociopolitical change. Thus,
nontraditional students typically include older adults, minorities, and
individuals of low socioeconomic status. Some nontraditional students are
not high-risk students, and, conversely, some high-risk students are traditional
students. By the same token, some high-risk students are also nontraditional;
for example, an older (or mature) student might also be academically underprepared.
WHAT IS THEIR IMPACT ON INSTITUTIONS?
Full-time enrollments are critical to an institution's continued survival,
and high levels of attrition adversely affect an institution's funding,
facilities planning, and long-term planning for the curriculum. Declining
enrollments, for instance, leave unused building capacity. Large numbers
of part-time or academically underprepared students increase the average
cost per student. Furthermore, high rates of noncompletion among others
in the general student body magnify the problem. Some institutions have
expanded their curricula to include special courses for their high-risk
students. While some changes in curriculum have been directly related to
colleges' and universities' efforts to reduce attrition, other changes
have been indirect. For example, the majors that students choose and the
changes they make in majors affect the development of curricula. Similarly,
academically underprepared students who choose majors they perceive as
less academically challenging affect the development of curricula, because
as the university enrolls fewer students choosing "difficult" majors and
more students choosing "easy" majors, its curriculum becomes thus shaped
ARE HIGH-RISK STUDENTS TREATED DIFFERENTLY IN ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY
To understand high-risk students in institutions of higher education,
one must review the different experiences of students in elementary and
high schools. The school curriculum seems to benefit white males and students
of high socioeconomic status more than minorities, females, and students
of low socioeconomic status (Reyes and Stanic 1985). For the most part,
minorities, females, and students of low socioeconomic status begin their
school experience with positive attitudes. But differences in race, gender,
and social class often begin to emerge during elementary school and increase
by high school and college. Discrimination based on class, race, and gender
influences the quality and quantity of material taught in schools.
Schools are an umbrella system or organization from which discrimination
and differential treatment are often meted out. Subtle forms of discrimination
can serve to undermine students' self-esteem and ultimately facilitate
attrition. As a result of the social stratification in society, teachers
and administrators may inherit a reality that creates an aversion to high-risk,
low-income, and minority students. This internalization is then reflected
in their attitudes and behavior toward those students.
Many scholars have confirmed the operation of a race-based ontology
in the classroom. Teachers and others tend to separate children into "good"
and "bad" students, with the polarized categories often based on race/ethnicity,
gender, and class. These negative attitudes may result in prejudgment or
avoidance of, for example, culturally different students to the point where
students receive little or no academic or personal assistance. Such negative
behaviors can lead to low aspirations and low self-esteem. And low self-esteem
can in time cause students to "cooperate" with systemic forces and participate
in various forms of antisocial behavior.
WHAT IMPLICATIONS CAN BE DRAWN?
Students in institutions of higher education encounter risks in several
forms. For example, risk might involve a higher probability of a low grade
point average and/or a greater chance of not completing a college degree.
It might also involve a relatively greater probability of choosing a field
that is incongruent with the skills and competencies needed by the present
labor market--particularly by the labor market of the 21st century. The
potential for risk and attrition exists for all college enrollees, but
for some subgroups, the probability of risk and attrition is extraordinarily
A number of causal variables interact to increase attrition and risk
among particular demographic and socioeconomic populations. These variables
can include academic factors (low grade point average, academic underpreparedness,
for example) but could extend far beyond the scope of the academic. Indeed,
each high-risk student represents the outcome of his or her individual
characteristics, combined with the shaping and contouring that occurs as
a consequence of a socially stratified society.
Regardless of the reason, however, attrition and risk are costly to
the individual and to society, both directly and indirectly. Thus, strategies
for intervention must be developed and implemented on a number of levels.
Among students, high-risk students must be challenged to develop academic
and nonacademic skills and competencies associated with success in college.
At the institutional level, administrators, teachers, and counselors must
engage in behaviors that facilitate persistence and completion of the program.
In addition, institutions of higher education must make a financial commitment
to high-risk students in the form of guaranteed financial assistance for
the duration of their degree program. At the community level, businesses
and community-based organizations have formed partnerships with educational
institutions to reduce risk.
In addition to these strategies for achieving success among high-risk
students, academic support services must be offered that include developing
and building skills. Further, the provision of social support is vital.
It can come from advisers/counselors, faculty, parents, family,and other
students and peers. This framework brings together the student, the teacher,
the institution, parents, peers, and the community in a dynamic synthesis.
Astin, Alexander W. 1975. Preventing Students from Dropping Out. San
College Entrance Examination Board. 1985. Equity and Excellence: The
Educational Status of Black Americans. New York: Authors
Jones, Dionne J., and Betty J. Watson. 1988. "The Increasing Significance
of Race." In Poverty, Race, and Public Policy, edited by Billy J. Tidwell.
Lanham, Md.: National Urban League Press.
Reyes, L.H., and G.M.A. Stanic. 1985. A Review of Literature on Blacks
and Mathematics." Paper presented at an annual meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, April, Chicago, Illinois.
Tinto, Vincent. 1975. "Dropouts from Higher Education: A Theoretical
Syntheses of Recent Research." Review of Educational Research 45(1): 89-125.
This ERIC digest is based on a new full-length report in the ASHE-ERIC
Higher Education Report series, prepared by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher
Education in cooperation with the Association for the Study of Higher Education,
and published by the School of Education at the George Washington University.