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September 18, 2011 12:06 PM The Little Things

By the Editors

Mt. Hood lets students check out books, laptops and calculators if they can’t afford them, runs a food pantry, and provides bus passes for students in emergencies. The cost of one-way bus fare on the local transit system is $2.40.

“Even that could be a deal-breaker for many of these students,” Cox said. “When you have first-generation students who have test anxiety and all kinds of other issues, the last thing they need is to have to deal with not having bus fare to get to their class.”

That was confirmed in a study sby researchers at Michigan State University, which found that minor problems can start a chain of events resulting in students dropping out.

“These small things—just simply having the bus fare, or an unexpected bad grade, or being depressed—are shocks that prompt students to think about quitting,” said Tim Pleskac, a Michigan State psychology professor who directed the study.

This is a particular problem for public universities and colleges, as states including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and Washington are beginning to fund them based not only on how many students they enroll, but on how many end up earning degrees.

But not all students are comfortable confessing that they can’t afford to ride the bus. So some universities and advocacy groups are taking the next step by developing sophisticated early-warning systems to track them individually and intervene at the first sign of a problem, often in response to reports from faculty or campus police about repeat absences or odd behavior, or from messages they monitor on social media.

Chris Rochow, a student at Michigan Tech, was contacted by a dean when his GPA fell to 1.4 in his first semester at the school. He was homesick, missed his girlfriend, and was intimidated by lecture classes half the size of his entire high school. Administrators enrolled him in a study-skills course.

If they hadn’t, “I definitely don’t think I would be here,” said Rochow, now a sophomore. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, now they’re watching me.’ ”

At Whittier College in southern California, it took three calls from the dean of freshmen before Sean Stribley reluctantly agreed to meet. He, too, had low grades—because he was dyslexic, as it turned out. Administrators arranged for him to use audio books.

It might sound like coddling, said Jeanne Ortiz, Whittier’s dean of students. “But it’s also accountability, and it’s support. We have to walk the fine line between holding students accountable for the choices that they make and their behavior but also recognizing that it doesn’t take much at all—an illness or a car accident—to put them over the edge.”

Jon Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine, and has also written about higher education for the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe Magazine.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

the Editors can be found on Twitter: @washmonthly.