Author discusses her new book on how colleges can help at-risk students succeed

Many students arrive at colleges and universities at substantial risk of dropping out. They may lack the academic preparation, the money and the support structure to succeed. A new book, Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Postsecondary Success with At-Risk Students [1] (Teachers College Press), offers a path forward for colleges to create paths for these students. The author is Karen Gross, a consultant who formerly was president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy adviser to the United States Department of Education. Via email, she responded to questions about the book.

Q: Many educators talk about “at-risk students” or “nontraditional students.” Why do you favor the term “breakaway learners,” and what does the term mean?

A: There is one more common term used (and I have used it along with the others listed above): “vulnerable students.” At some levels, all of the existing terms struck me as pejorative in some sense. Vulnerability, for example, is not seen as a strength in American culture. Being at risk suggests that something bad could happen — as in land in jail or do harm to others or oneself. Nontraditional refers to something out of the norm, even though in real life, nontrads are overtaking trads in numbers. These terms, then, can each be seen as marginalizing students by making them seem less than. It is for these reasons that I use the term “breakaway learners” and why it is the title of my book. Breakaway learners are individuals who are both literally and figuratively breaking away from their prior experiences and the negative expectations of others. Breakaway learners are taking risks — moving out of comfort zones into new places and spaces. They are to be applauded and lauded, and they needed a nomenclature that showcased their efforts.

Q: What do you see as the key issues with recruiting such students? What do colleges need to do to attract these students?

A: Would that there were easy answers to these two posed questions, because if there were, more breakaway learners would be populating our postsecondary education institutions. Before I answer, I also want to say that recruiting these students — attracting these students — is not the same as retaining and graduating these students. To be sure, if they do not even enroll, there is not a need to worry about graduation.

Here are three ways to improve recruitment and enable colleges/universities to enroll more breakaway learners: (1) think about and then activate education as a pipeline that runs from birth through adulthood and plants learning “seeds” early and often and ventilate the silos in which the institutions along the pipeline operate; (2) provide improved professional development opportunities that work across institutions so that teachers and professors stop complaining about not having students who look and act and perform like they did and start to become more understanding and accepting of students today and their enormous strengths, even among those who have experienced children trauma, abuse and toxic stress; and (3) improve guidance counseling, including improving the ratio of students to counselors and augmenting counselor knowledge of a wide range of educational institutions, not just those that are either local and/or elite.

Q: You discuss the stress that these students have. How serious are the stress and mental health issues?

A: The stresses are both real and serious, and they are often ignored, unrecognized and not understood. A growing number of students today in the educational landscape have high ACEs (adverse childhood experience scores) based on the standard quiz of that name. What this means is that students come into the educational system with a myriad of psychosocial issues that have made and currently make learning a challenge. It is not a question of smarts; it is a question of priorities and preparation. Think of the Maslow hierarchy. If you do not eat and are hungry, the best reading teacher in America cannot enable you to read. You need to eat first. If you do not sleep well at home (because you have no bed or no home or are listening to fights or gunshots or observing (and perhaps experiencing) the effects of drugs and alcohol), you will sleep in school or miss classes — suboptimal, to be sure. Stress is, in a word, a killer; it affects both soft and hard wiring; it impacts learning; it impedes development of self; it harms growth; it fosters bad or compensatory habits. Surely we need more mental health professionals, but we also need, and this is emphasized in Breakaway Learners, institutions that are understanding of and capable of handling students who have high ACEs; that involve training of all individuals on a campus and a change in campus culture in most instances.

Read the complete interview with Karen Gross and Inside Higher Ed here.