How Do You Really Know if a Student is At Risk? How John Carroll University is Looking into This

young male student using his laptop in a campus learning space.

What is an at-risk student? And is just measuring persistence enough? What are the most critical indicators to track?


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

This was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

John Carroll University has been working to improve student success measures for low-income students: work they’ve already seen pay off among their students who receive Pell Grants. On average, there is a 5.7 percentage point gap in the graduation rates of students who receive Pell Grants and those who do not, but at JCU there is no gap at all. JCU’s Pell Grant students also boast a six-year graduation rate of 75 percent vs. the national average of 51 percent.

This fall, JCU received a $1.3 million First in the World grant to analyze additional factors that could be considered when identifying at-risk students, and to integrate support for those students with linked learning communities. We talked with Terry Mills, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion, and First in the World Project Director to learn more about linked learning communities, student thriving, and their research on at-risk factors.

Their approach is both comprehensive and deeply data-informed, and we think other institutions will want to watch their project closely.

What Really Tells You a Student is At Risk? What Tells You a Student is Thriving?

A key part of JCU’s project seeks to identify other elements that indicate a student could be at risk. These are students who may not fit the typical “at-risk” profile, including students who might appear to be doing well at first glance.

“For me the question is ‘what is an at-risk student?’ We have a general  sense of what an at-risk student might be, such as: a first-generation student, a low-income student, perhaps a student from an underrepresented background. But, also an at-risk student could be a student who has a full-time job, or an at-risk student could be a student who isn’t sufficiently connected with the campus community.”
Terry Mills, John Carroll University

Student thriving — not just persistence — is critical. “Thriving” depends on a student’s level of functioning in three key areas: academic engagement and performance, interpersonal relationships and interpersonal well-being. Mills will measure study habits, skill sets and a student’s level of connection with the campus, such as being involved with extracurricular activities or holding an on-campus part-time job to assess thriving.

They will use a variety of assessment tools, including the Thriving Quotient™ metric to measure academic, social, and psychological aspects of college experience, the EQ-I 2.0 to measure emotional intelligence and the Student Development Task and Lifestyle Inventory to answer these key questions:

  • What are the most critical indicators that a student is at risk?
  • What are the factors related to students not just being successful, but thriving?
  • What about the students who are in the “murky middle” — who may have a 3.0 GPA but who may be going under the radar in terms of academic advising and career counseling?

Helping Students Thrive: Linked Learning Communities

To help at-risk students navigate their first year academically, JCU is introducing linked learning communities. A linked learning community involves a cohort of students who take two linked courses together during both semesters of their first year.

The linked courses are typical first-year courses that have been integrated to help students build on skill sets as they move through their courses. The courses are also based on a theme, such as poverty in the United States, to further encourage students to link the skills and ideas that they learn in one of those linked course to what they learn in the other. JCU linked learning communities include targeted courses such as introduction to biology, oral communication, introduction to theology and religion — all typical courses for first-year JCU students.

“The linked learning community provides a built-in community of colleagues with similar learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.”
Terry Mills, John Carroll University

Mills also is working to design and conduct instructional development courses to give faculty additional opportunities to establish linked learning communities this year. By the end of the grant, JCU will develop a broader portfolio of linked learning courses that integrate thriving and other findings from JCU’s research on at-risk students into curriculum development. It will be key to integrate JCU’s expanded definition of at-risk students with the work of both the linked learning communities and more traditional forms of support for at-risk students — such as the institution’s early alert systems.

Keys to Success

Data collection and analysis is the project’s big challenge. In the months ahead, John Carroll University will need to address:

  • How to tailor new student orientation, and perhaps even the application and admissions process, to administer assessment tools and analyze the data quickly enough to block-register intervention group students into linked learning courses
  • Determining baseline and starting point equivalences among the control and intervention groups to ensure fidelity between control and intervention groups
  • Determine all the significant indicators of at-risk students before students register for those first courses

In addition, Mills plans to use adjusted GPA rather than cumulative (or raw) GPA to determine student outcomes. Because many different factors play into a student’s grade, such as whether a professor grades with a curve, uses a fixed point system, or requires student participation, affect grades, raw GPA may not adequately assess whether a student made progress — or whether a study’s results were statistically significant. Mills hopes that adjusted GPA will produce significant results.


In our 2012 article “Predicting Student Success: Rethinking GPA,” Bernadette Jungblut (West Virginia University) and Jim Scannell, president of Scannell & Kurz Inc., discuss how you can take a more sophisticated look at high school GPA and first term GPA as predictors.

You may also be interested in this related article on how Central Carolina Community College is using their 2015 First in the World grant to more specifically identify and intervene with at-risk students.

Why You Should Watch This Project

If successful, John Carroll University’s model for identifying and supporting at-risk students can be easily replicated across institutions. JCU hopes that their findings will help arrive at a broader and more practical definition of at-risk students, and that their study of the difference between student success and student thriving will help boost student persistence and graduation rates at JCU — and offer some significant food for thought for other institutions.

How is your institution working to identify at-risk students?