Teaching At-Risk Students Workshop

Week 1:  An Introduction to "At-Risk," College Readiness, and Our Campuses 

Step 1 (of 2):  Read about At-Risk Students and College Readiness in the UW Colleges

A. What Does It Mean to Be "Underprepared" or "At-Risk"?

In an open-admission, two-year college setting like the UW Colleges, instructors encounter a wide range of student learning needs and readiness for academic reading, writing, quantitative learning, and thinking.  In contrast, those who teach at more selective universities still encounter diverse student populations, but the admissions process narrows the gap between student readiness and the demands of college coursework by predetermining that students with certain academic profiles (such as low test scores or grades) can’t enroll at those institutions until after they successfully complete remedial classes and introductory degree-credit coursework at open-access public colleges. However, even the average college students in the US and at UWC may be underprepared in one or more areas for college-level learning. For the purpose of this workshop, at-risk students are college learners who are at-risk of suspension, probation, or dropping out of higher education. Most of these students are underprepared for the academic demands of postsecondary education, but factors other than college readiness can affect a student’s ability to successfully complete college courses.

B. College Readiness and UWC Students

In their white paper, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” the nonprofit Bridgespan consulting group summarizes key findings about college readiness based on the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS: 88, 2000), which studied students from eighth grade to adulthood: “[S]tudents are defined as 'minimally qualified' for college if they meet one of five criteria:

  • Rank at or above the 54th percentile in their class; 
  • Have a GPA of 2.7 or higher in academic courses;
  • Have a combined SAT score of 820 or above (approximately the 35th percentile);
  • Have an ACT composite score of 19 or higher (approximately the 40th percentile);
  • Score at the 56th percentile or above on the 1992 NELS math and reading composite aptitude test.

According to Bridgespan, "A student who graduates from high school having met this very lenient definition of academic preparedness has an 85% chance of entering college and a 50% chance of receiving a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, students who fall short have only a 14% chance of completing college. Shockingly, only 46% of high school graduates meet even this minimal level of academic preparation." A review of data on ACT Benchmark scores shows that large numbers of UWC students do not achieve ACT scores in math, science, English, and reading that would predict success in college coursework. The average ACT scores for UWC students are also substantially lower than scores for their peers at four-year UW System schools on the same subject tests.


Further, the UW Colleges campuses enroll some students who are significantly underprepared for college reading, writing, and quantitative learning; these students’ lack of readiness for college-level academic coursework means that they are often much more at-risk of suspension, probation, and dropping out of higher education compared to peers who are only moderately underprepared.  For example, in 2010, only half of incoming UWC students who took the ACT achieved the benchmark score of 21 for college reading readiness (which would reflect textbook reading skills, not the independent analysis of nonfiction texts required for some first-year college learning tasks).  However, campuses also enroll students with test scores that are much lower than this benchmark, including those with ACT scores below 13, which would put them in the bottom 1 to 10 percentile of students nationally and would suggest that they are not even ready for the remedial courses in UWC developmental reading and writing program without significant learning support. However, some campuses do not yet offer reading, learning skills, and/or tutorial support classes for these students to supplement the required remedial math and composition courses.

C. Changing Enrollment Patterns for the UW Colleges

Even within the UW Colleges, the number of our students who are "at-risk" academically has shifted in the last three decades. For example, in the mid 1980s, most of our student population came from the top half of their high school class.  In 1986, 27% of students at the UWC were in the top quartile, 29% in the second, 27% in the third, and 17% in the fourth quartile (and this number was as low as 10% in 1989). By contrast, in Fall 2010 at one representative UWC campus, 17% of students graduated in the top quartile of their high school graduating classes, 27% in the second quartile, 31% in the third quartile, and 11 percent in the bottom quartile; 13% of students had no high school rank. This "unranked" group is particularly at risk for academic difficulty because it includes students who have nontraditional educational paths including students with a GED/HSED or other high school completion program, home schooled students, or students who attended alternative high schools.  Many (if not most) students in the unranked group are adult learners who are entering or returning to higher education after several years away from academic learning.

D. The Demographics of Open-Access Institutions

Two-year open admission campuses are also more likely to serve nontraditional/place bound students, students of color, multilingual students, and first-generation and working class college students. For example, the recent Chronicle of Higher Education report profiling undergraduate demographics shows that 12.07% of all undergraduates identify as coming from families making less than $20,000 per year, and of that group, 48% attend a two-year public college; another 11.58% identify as coming from families that make between $20,000 and $40,000, and 52% of that group attend public, two-year campuses. Working class and low-income students are often also first-generation college students who are acclimating to the demands of higher education.  In 2009, 60% of incoming first-year students and transfer applicants at the UW Colleges were first-generation college students compared to only 19% at UW Madison. Only UW Parkside serves as many first-generation students.  It is important to note that the numbers from the four-year UW System schools would include first-generation students who began their postsecondary education in the UW Colleges before transferring. 

Reflect, Respond, or Interact

Reflect upon your own experience transitioning to higher education. To what extent were you prepared for college learning? What experiences in high school best prepared you for college learning? What challenges did you face? What was your attitude toward learning? What skills helped you be successful? Which were less important? What kind of institution did you attend, and how did that influence your college experience? 

To respond to these questions, feel free to send your thoughts to vtlc@uwc.edu. You can also interact with the content and each other more directly on this VoiceThread page. (Need a VoiceThread tutorial?  Go here.)