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Students walk on York College's campus on a sunny day.

Students who are on academic probation at York College are supported with one-on-one advising and personalized goal setting.

York College

During their college career, around 8 percent of students are on academic probation at least once, and odds increased to 9 percent among first-generation students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

While many institutions offer a variety of student services to promote academic success, there remains a need for intentional support for struggling learners who can feel a variety of negative emotions when placed on probation.

York College of Pennsylvania takes a holistic approach to supporting students on probation through its Back on Track program, established in 2008. The program pairs students with a staff mentor who shares strategies for improving academic outcomes and holds the student accountable for raising their academic standing.

How it works: Students who fall below a 2.0 grade point average are placed on academic probation and automatically routed into the Back on Track program. Each term, Renée Sefton, coordinator for student success initiatives at York, works with eight professional advisers who serve as mentors.

Sefton matches students to staff based on where there could be an established connection, like a first-year seminar instructor or an academic adviser.

The number of participants varies by semester, with spring semesters typically seeing around 120 students on academic probation and fall semesters averaging around 60. The difference largely comes from first-year students struggling to adjust to college life or academics, Sefton says.

Once in the program, students are expected to meet with their mentor five times over the term.

  • The first meeting reviews the student’s current GPA and course schedule for the term. The adviser works with the student to calculate their GPA and needed grades for the upcoming term. It’s critical that this first meeting takes place before the end of the add/drop period because often students can benefit most from retaking a class with a poor grade then performing well in the next course, Sefton says.
  • Prior to meeting a second time, students complete a self-assessment about their strengths and challenges, academic experiences, on-campus involvement, work schedule, or other barriers to success, which is reviewed at the meeting. Together, the mentor and student address strategies for removing barriers.
  • Then the pair creates a plan for academic success, writing specific, personalized goals and action steps with the goal of “maximizing the chances of a student being academically successful that semester,” Sefton says.
  • Around the third meeting, typically at the midpoint of the semester, the mentor will review faculty feedback with the student. At York, every professor provides comments on students’ performance, whether they’re in danger of failing or high achieving, Sefton says.
  • During the last few meetings, the pair reflects on strategies and resources used and their efficacy. In the final meeting, the mentor will recalculate the student’s GPA based on their anticipated final grades and how that will impact academic standing.

The impact: Overwhelmingly, students on academic probation who participate in the program perform better than their peers, Sefton says. Over the past six years or so, 54 percent of students who completed Back on Track achieved good standing or dean’s list that term, compared to 11 percent of students also formerly on academic probation who achieved those designations but did not participate.

On average, students who participated in Back on Track raised their GPA by one grade point that term, and those who did not participate averaged no change in GPA. Cumulatively, Back on Track participants improved their GPA by half a grade point, while their peers had little to no GPA change.

Many students who complete the program also request to continue working with a Back on Track mentor, Sefton says.

In program evaluations, students identify positive changes to their behaviors, including time management, class attendance, communication, planning and organization, self-care, using campus resources, focus, work ethic, decision-making, and study strategies.

Students have also said their advisers are excellent resources for advice, calculating GPA and providing a sense of accountability, as well as compassionate mentors.

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