Incoming freshmen at Wichita State University who start out this fall missing class, blowing off assignments or making poor grades will be flagged for a visit with an adviser to try to get them back on track.
The "early-alert system" is designed to keep students in school and on the road to eventual graduation.
The GradesFirst program is being piloted this summer with student-athletes and Dean's Scholars. All freshmen will be in the system this fall, and all undergraduates will be included starting either in spring or fall 2012.
"It's kind of surprising" the number of freshmen who don't know they're in trouble academically until it's too late, said Bill Vanderburgh, executive director of WSU's Office for Faculty Development and Student Success.
"When they find out we care and have the resources" to help them, they usually respond and are able to salvage their semester, he said.
At least, that's what has happened at other schools where such a system has been tried, Vanderburgh said. They have seen "marked increases in retention and graduation rates."
Intervention is a growing trend in universities nationwide, he said, and it's part of an answer to a Kansas Board of Regents mandate to increase retention and graduation rates at the state's four-year universities.
WSU has about a 70 percent retention rate for freshmen, which is similar to the national average, Vanderburgh said. The regents want that to increase to 80 percent in the next 10 years.
WSU sees 40 percent of its freshmen go on to graduate within six years; the regents want that to increase to 50 percent.
Nationally, the original-freshmen-who-graduate average is around 57 percent. While WSU's rate is lower, it is typical for an urban university, said Donna Hawley, director of WSU's Office of Institutional Research. A higher percentage of urban-university students who graduate transfer in rather than starting at the school as freshmen, for example, she said.
Vanderburgh said that there are complaints that the GradesFirst system involves hand-holding at a time when students are supposed to be growing up and taking responsibility.
But he said that hand-holding often starts in high school. Such coddling and the fact that some parents have over-managed their children's schedules are among the reasons young people need the intervention, he said.
"A lot of students aren't ready" for managing their own time and getting their homework in on time, for example, Vanderburgh said.
And one of the biggest reasons for students dropping out is finances, he said. Students either work a lot while in school or drop out to avoid loans.
He said an adviser can give them ways to manage, perhaps by taking more financial aid but finishing school faster, or by avoiding credit card debt.
The early-alert system will work this way:
Instructors will have a list of their students on a secure link on their computers and will be able to click as many as three buttons for each student — missed classes, missed assignments, poor grades — and can also add comments. This will put a "flag" on the student; the flag will then be received by an adviser.
The adviser will contact the student to determine what the problems are and try to resolve them.
While most of the intervention is needed when students are freshmen and new to college, the system will be extended to all undergraduates to give professors an opportunity for more feedback, Vanderburgh said.
The system will rely on their timely participation, he said.
"If we each make an investment in student success, the whole campus will reap the rewards," he said.
GradesFirst is not the only way WSU is trying to increase retention and graduation rates. Other efforts include a revamped WSU 101 class that will help freshmen with study skills, time and financial management, majors and career preparation; doubling the number of tutors, and making summer orientation more robust.