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What does a good first outreach to a struggling student look like?

I have a pretty good idea of what it shouldn’t look like. In my own freshman year of college, I was surrounded by affluent prep school graduates on a pretty campus in the middle of nowhere.  For reasons lost to the sands of time, I decided it would be a good idea to try to study Russian. As longtime readers know, it did not go well. 

About halfway through the semester, as I sweated bullets trying to get both the college experience and that class under control, I got an intimidating-looking letter from the college, informing me that I was doing badly in Russian.

Ya think?

The letter added fuel to the fire of self-doubt, without offering any practical advice about what to do to turn it around.  My already tenuous sense of belonging there took a hit, and my performance in Russian continued to underwhelm. Eventually, the class came to an end, and I decided that it was time to try a different path.  So the most I can say for the warning letter is that it inflicted insult, but no measurable injury. At best. I’m quite sure I would have been at least as well off, if not better off, had they simply skipped it.

I discovered this week that the letter we send to students who have been identified as struggling in a given class isn’t much different.  (Cough) years later, it’s the same idea, and I’d guess that it has much the same effect.

So we’re looking at re-envisioning the initial outreach.  Instead of sounding an alarm, which presumes that the student doesn’t know something is wrong -- they almost always do -- it should be more like tossing a life preserver.  Base it on the assumption that most students who are struggling would rather be doing well; they are more often overwhelmed than indifferent.

That vision, as basic as it is, lends itself to a few obvious steps.  Initial outreach should include contact information for the tutoring center, for instance, as well as Disability Services, the Veterans Center, Financial Aid, and several other offices that can help address common issues.  (Ideally, initial outreach would be by a human being, but we don’t have the staff to do that at scale.) I don’t know if tutoring would have helped me much, but I would at least have seen the relevance of offering it.

That’s at the most basic level.  I’d guess that stopping there would make a minimal difference, if at least a positive one.  I’m looking for the next level up. What kind of outreach -- message, method, or both -- would be likeliest to achieve a positive academic outcome?

Again, I’m writing within a context in which “hire 50 coaches and offer concierge service” is not an option.  We can’t Harvard this. And for reasons both ethical and economic, I reject out of hand the idea of outsourcing the job to headhunters working on commission, like some sort of for-profit truant officer.  I’m looking for something ethical enough that I could run across the student years later and defend what we did with a straight face.

I know that mine isn’t the only college working on trying to save struggling students.  That’s why I’m hopeful that my wise and worldly readers will have seen some nifty, practical ideas that actually work. 

Assuming we can’t just hire a cadre of people, what does a really effective life preserver look like?

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