In 2022, when I stepped into my role as interim vice provost for academic affairs at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), one of my major tasks was to reduce failure rates in key gateway courses, which, if not passed, limit students’ progression to other courses. This was going to be challenging; the institution has seen drastic differences in outcomes for students with diverse life circumstances and who often struggle to balance the demands of college with their family and work lives.
Prior to assuming my administrative role, I had been a professor at the university for nearly fifteen years. I’ll never forget my first year of teaching. Like most of our students, I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I couldn’t wait to expose our students to the world of higher education. I was going to change their lives! I learned quickly, though, that my students were facing challenges I could never have imagined when I was in college.
To better support my students, several weeks into my initial term, I announced that if anyone was struggling to afford the course textbook, they could come to my office and borrow one of my extra copies. That evening, the line went down the hall and around the corner. One student shared that she grew up in foster care and studied at a twenty-four-hour IHOP because she had no place to stay. Another described how his father had recently been incarcerated for murdering the student’s mother. The student was living in an unstable situation at his aunt’s apartment. Yet another was supporting her family, which included her two parents and three siblings; they had been evicted and were living in their car. I left my office deeply affected by the formidable stressors with which our students were coping.
Some of these stressors should have been evident to me. The city of San Bernardino has a poverty rate of around 20 percent and a high school dropout rate of 29 percent. Yet, despite these realities, CSUSB has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top universities in the West and was fourth in the nation for increasing students’ social mobility. These standings are, in part, thanks to the California State University system’s learning equity goals. As the nation’s largest and most diverse four-year public university system, the campuses have been charged with five priorities: (1) re-engaging and re-enrolling underserved students; (2) financially supporting students to enroll in summer/intersession courses; (3) ensuring equitable access to graduation course planning maps; (4) eliminating administrative barriers to graduation; and (5) promoting equitable learning practices for courses with persistently high failure rates.
Institutions must meet these goals without compromising academic rigor. For CSUSB, one of twenty-three campuses in the CSU system, this means paying attention to academic support services. CSUSB is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, and 80 percent of its students are first-generation college students. More than 70 percent are from groups historically excluded from higher education, and more than 80 percent rely on financial aid. Students from these groups often enter college after having faced numerous obstacles, making it essential that they receive appropriate academic supports.
I learned quickly, though, that my students were facing challenges I could never have imagined when I was in college.
In the fall of 2022, the provost for academic affairs and I designed a cross-college intervention for face-to-face and online courses with persistently high failure and withdrawal rates. The project involved referring students at risk of failing midway through a course to their academic advisor to determine what was affecting their performance. The advisors then referred students to appropriate supports. Students described issues such as financial hardship (“Gas prices are too high, and the bus doesn’t service my area, so I can’t always get to campus for class”), feeling underprepared (“I’m not a good writer”), difficult coursework or not understanding expectations (“I don’t know how to do well in an asynchronous course—there isn’t a lot of teaching”), acute stressors (“I got into a car accident and fell behind”), balancing competing demands (“I’m a single parent and need to work, so I have less time for schoolwork”), and difficulty making friends (“University is different from high school; it’s hard to make friends, and you don’t have anyone to ask for help”). Based on the challenges they were facing, students were then referred to people on campus for assistance. These included professors, department chairs, financial aid advisors, academic tutors, peer mentors, and/or counseling staff.
I simultaneously facilitated focus groups with instructors at the midpoint and end of the term to learn more about what might be negatively affecting student achievement. Much of what the instructors described mirrored what I had experienced during my time as a professor, including students’ financial hardships and difficulties balancing school and life demands. “When my students stop attending, I reach out to learn what is going on,” one professor said. “The ones who respond are overcommitted. They are balancing too many courses for what they can handle, and many are working full-time and have family obligations. By the time they get to their coursework, it can be one or two in the morning.”
I provided participating instructors with a set of strategies known to promote academic success, such as getting to know their students, providing timely feedback, and conducting a midpoint assessment of the course. These approaches help demonstrate a professor’s investment in their students and reinforce feelings of belonging and inclusion. Consequently, students might be more inclined to establish a rapport with their professors, which facilitates prompt referrals to on-campus resources. The strategies can also aid in boosting attendance, highlighted by multiple professors as a significant issue. Instead of evading class and their instructor out of fear or embarrassment, students might be more inclined to seek help. Feedback from the instructor focus groups showed the fruit of these strategies. One professor described a student who was doing well at the midpoint of the term but subsequently lost his job and had to move, which affected his attendance and course grade. The professor made the student aware of campus supports, and the student reached out to them, getting help to refocus on academics. He ultimately earned the second-highest grade in class.
At the end of the term, the provost and I assessed the results of the intervention efforts. The work had paid off: students who had met with their academic advisor and were then referred to supports were three times more likely to pass their course compared with their at-risk peers who did not meet with an advisor. I was thrilled we had made such a positive impact, and we have since launched an online academic intervention report (AIR) system through which professors or students can request assistance. Once a student or professor reaches out through AIR, the student needing support is connected with appropriate resources. Since AIR’s implementation in spring 2023, professors have made 1,300 referrals, and approximately 3,200 students have requested assistance.
Because of historical and economic factors, CSUSB’s student population may be particularly in need of support, but I hope our efforts offer ideas for colleges and universities everywhere to better aid struggling students while there’s still time to help them pass their courses. The big takeaway from our work at CSUSB so far is that intervening to assist individual students—whether through professor and/or advisor outreach or technological means of connecting students to support—is highly likely to augment academic success.
Photo: Students participate in an orientation program at California State University, San Bernadino (Robert A. Whitehead/CSUSB)