Resources for Advising At-Risk Students

Advising At Risk Students

By Pat Walsh

Students can be considered at-risk for achieving academic success in higher education for a variety of reasons.   Martha Maxwell (1997, p. 2) states that this group of students' 'skills, knowledge, motivation, and/or academic ability are significantly below those of the 'typical' student in the college or curriculum in which they are enrolled.'   In addition, Ender and Wilkie (2000, p. 134-135) state that these students are likely to display any number of other characteristics such as 'low academic self-concept, unrealistic grade and career expectations, unfocused career objectives, extrinsic motivation, external locus of control, low self-efficacy, inadequate study skills for college success, a belief that learning is memorizing, and a history of passive learning.'

At-risk students may be those who have made poor choices or decisions that impacted negatively on their academics, or they may be an adult student who returns to higher education after an extended absence, or students with academic or physical limitations not identified before enrolling in higher education.   Advising services must be designed to effectively address the characteristics and academic needs of under-prepared and at-risk students.

Jones and Becker (2002) identified several academic advising services for this group of students.   These include using peer advisors and providing a visual means to disseminate information to the students before they even see their advisor.   They also suggest that advisors be aware that this group of students benefits from more personal attention from individual advising sessions that focus on the student's development of self-confidence and their ability to make sound decisions.   Finally they suggest that advisors evaluate their delivery of academic services.   Nutt (2003) suggests using an intrusive advising approach, insisting upon collaborative relationships with other campus resources, and encouraging advisors to invest in the student to help them gain a sense of belonging and that they matter.

Jones and Becker (2002) identify the need for programs that teach decision-making skills, promote self-advocacy, provide curriculum intensive advising, and provide services to support students during their first year.   Ender and Wilkie (2000) include remedial courses for basic reading, writing, and math skills in their programming suggestions.

A variety of programs exist that provide assistance to under-prepared and at-risk students. Examples include:

  • Specially designed courses for high-risk students focusing on critical thinking skills, evaluation of academic goals and identification of realistic strategies to meet goals (ie: UNIV 101 at the U of Alabama, Birmingham )
  • Learning community programs that includes common courses and residence on campus.
  • SSSP (Federally funded Student Support Services Program) for students who are any one of the following: 1 st generation, have a verifiable disability, or have a Pell Grant in their financial aid package. The program includes tutoring; academic, personal, career advising; study skills and personal development workshops; financial aid and scholarship information; cultural enrichment activities and trips to student conferences. Program examples:

It's a tall order for advisors to be all things for all students but as Jones & Becker (2002) point out, 'We must become experts in advisor multi-tasking: teaching as well as counseling, being honest as well as encouraging, and being informed as well as open-minded.' in order to serve under-prepared and at-risk students well.

Pat Walsh (Student in the Kansas State University program leading to a graduate certificate in academic advising)

Iowa State University

Advising Coordinator

Human Development and Family Studies


References and suggested readings:

Ender, S.C. and Wilkie, C. J. (2000). Advising Students with Special Needs. In V.N. Gordon, W.R. Habley, & Associates (Eds.), Academic Advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 118-143). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N.J., Forney, D.S. & Guido-DiBrito, V. (1998) Student Development in College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harding, B. and Miller, M.A. (2013). How to determine who is at-risk. Retrieved from

Jones, R. and Becker, K. (2002, April) Getting Prepared for the Underprepared. The Mentor. 4(2). Retrieved on September 26, 2003, from

Maxwell, M.(1997). Improving Student Learning Skills. Clearwater FL: H & H Publishing.

Miller, M.A. & Murray, C. (2005). Advising academically underprepared students. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site

Nutt, C. L. (2003). Advising Underprepared Students. Unpublished manuscript.

Resources to aid in advising At Risk students

Schlossberg, Nancy K. (1989) Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community.   In D.C. Roberts (Ed.), Designing campus activities to foster a sense of community (New Directions for Student Services, No. 48, pp. 5-15).   San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Pat Walsh

Iowa State University

Cite the above resource using APA style as:

Walsh, P. (2003). At-risk students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:


Frequently Asked Questions

Q . To a degree, the student must seek advising. The students who need the most advising often seek it the least. What are the most effective incentive models for getting students to seek advising?

Encouraging students to seek advising, especially those who might need it the most, is a formidable challenge. To get the student into the first interview might require personal contact via the phone or e-mail. It might help to tie the interview to some action of consequence for the student, such as preparing for mid-terms. Once the student has come in, the second interview could be set up as the student leaves the first. Making some sort of contract with the might help also. Rapport needs to be established between the student and the advisor so that the student might come to realize that something beneficial might come out of the advising session. Giving the student some sort of 'assignment' to complete might also encourage the student to return for additional sessions.

Eric White, Ed.D.

Penn State University
NACADA '04-05 President

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