How quickly can you tell if a college student is struggling at school?

Kristine Snyder says the warning signs can show up in the first two weeks. And she believes that those students can be helped, as long as someone is paying attention.

As a dean at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Snyder is in charge of a new pilot project designed to identify struggling students as early as possible. If it works, she said, it could help them ride out the bumps that might otherwise cause them to give up and drop out.

The new “Early Warning Navigator Program” will start at MCTC this fall with a $180,000 grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation, which is funding efforts to improve graduation rates for low-income and minority students.

“We do lose a lot of students in that first semester,” Snyder said. In the past, instructors were asked to report their concerns about individual students to an adviser. But often, she said, the alerts came too late.

Now, she plans to survey instructors in three freshman courses — developmental math, writing and business — in the first two weeks, to see if students are showing up, arriving on time, taking notes.

If they’re not, she said, the school will assign a “navigator” — a coach or helper — to chase them down and get them help. “Those little behaviors are really telling about who will be successful and who won’t,” she said. “And that’s easy for us to fix if we catch them early.”

Is it a college’s job to “chase down” students? Snyder admits that’s been a subject of debate within the college. But some students just need a guiding hand, especially if they’re the first in their family to go to college.

“We’re dealing with a population that’s very vulnerable,” she said. “A lot of colleges sit back, and we certainly have in the past. What that does is, we watch students fail. This is part of the responsibility of a community college faculty, to kind of notice how their students are doing and invest in their success.”