By Tim Renick, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success at Georgia State University
The numbers are sobering. In the United States today, an individual from the wealthiest 25 percent of households is six times more likely to hold a college degree than an individual from the lowest-income 25 percent. White students graduate from college at rates 20 percentage points higher than black students. Shamefully, by many measures, these achievement gaps are not closing but growing wider.
My job as vice president for student success at one of the largest and most diverse public universities in the nation means that I come face to face with these realities on a day-to-day basis. Georgia State University, located in downtown Atlanta, enrolls 50,000 students per year. Among our undergraduates, 65 percent are non-white, 60 percent are low-income, and many arrive to campus academically underprepared. A little over a decade ago, our six-year graduation rate for students seeking bachelor’s degrees was a woeful 32 percent, and low-income and underrepresented students struggled even more. Our graduation rate was 25 percent for black students and just 22 percent for Hispanics. By failing to graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds, we were a prime example of the achievement gaps that plague American higher education.
While there is no magic bullet for closing these gaps, we reached a turning point when we seriously asked an uncomfortable question: “Are we part of the problem?” Rather than blaming our results on K-12 or declining state appropriations, we put a mirror on ourselves and began to talk about the ways we were contributing to our students dropping out. Today, our graduation rates have climbed by 22 percentage points, and the achievement gaps are gone. More than 70 percent of the students who start at Georgia State now graduate within six years, either from Georgia State or some other institution. Georgia State was the only public university in the U.S. last year at which the black, Latino, first-generation and low-income students all graduated at the rate of the student body over all, and we graduated more black students with Bachelor’s degrees than any non-profit college or university in the nation.
So how did we accomplish this? Here are a few key factors that made a difference:
Rethinking how we teach. We have overhauled our approach to majors, class structures, and more. Our approach to math is one example. Ten years ago, 43 percent of our students were getting non-passing grades in introductory math courses. It was easy to claim the culprit was poor math education in Georgia high schools. It was harder to admit that maybe the problem was the way we were delivering math instruction, by lecturing at students for three hours a week. So we totally changed the format, turning all of the 7,000 seats of introductory math courses that we offer each year into “flipped” classrooms. Students now meet as a class with instructors in computer labs, working on exercises at individual terminals and getting hundreds of bits of immediate feedback to their personal responses to exercises. In short, students are actually doing math. The result: 35 percent more students are passing our college-level math courses on their first attempts. Apparently, K-12 was not as much to blame for the poor outcomes of the past as we had led ourselves to believe.
Investing in smarter advising. We now deploy predictive analytics to identify students who are academically off path and thus at risk of leaving college without a degree. We track every Georgia State student every day, looking for 800 different risk factors that are linked to dropping out, like underperforming in key, prerequisite courses. Then we proactively reach out to students to offer help. Over the past twelve months, we have had more than 52,000 one-on-one meetings between academic advisors and students that were prompted by alerts coming out of the system. To enable this, we centralized our academic advising—a function that was previously left up to individual colleges and academic departments—and now have a team of more than one hundred full-time advisors focused on helping our students persist and graduate. As a result of these interventions, not only are more students graduating, but they are graduating more quickly. We have shaved, on average, more than half a semester off the time it takes a Georgia State student to earn a degree, saving the graduating class of 2016 $15 million in tuition and fees when compared to the class of 2013.
Lending students money to get them over the finish line. We noticed that over 1,000 students every semester were leaving school because they were short of money to cover tuition and fees. The majority of these students were seniors, with less than a year to go to graduation. Only about 30 percent of them ever came back to finish their degree. We could see exactly how much each student owed. In some cases, a few hundred dollars stood between them and a degree. So we decided to help them out. When we see that a student is behind on their tuition payment, we preemptively add money to their account—up to $1,500 total, and about $900 on average. This initiative has been transformative. Over the past four years, we have awarded more than 8,000 of these micro grants and 70 percent of the recipients are graduating.
While Georgia State has become known for its proactive use of data, I am reminded every day that there are real lives behind every number that we track. We are now graduating 1,700 more students every year than we were just five years ago.
One of these students is Carl McCray. Carl came to us from Fitzgerald, Georgia, a rural town with a population of 9,032. He had a rocky start to college, having difficulty adjusting to a big campus and big city. He started as a Nursing major because his mom told him there were a lot of jobs with good pay in the field, but he didn’t like science and did poorly in his classes. “I started taking the sciences, chemistry and biology, and they were killing me,” he says.
A few years ago, Carl’s college story likely would have ended with his dropping out with debt and no degree to help him pay it off. Instead, our new programs allowed us to notice his struggles in time to help. He met with advisors and was redirected to business classes—where the analytics showed he had strengths—and he thrived. When he graduated last spring with a degree in Marketing and landed a job with Amazon, he became the first African American male from his high school in Fitzgerald ever to earn a college degree. The youngest of 22 grandchildren, Carl became the first member of his family to complete a college degree. Carl not only changed his pathway but that of a family and a town.
We still have a long way to go, and we are constantly seeking out new ways to help students who historically have been underserved by higher education. We have launched an initiative to use analytics to identify financial problems that our students are having in a more timely manner. We have begun to deploy “chat bots”—texting systems enabled by artificial-intelligence—to communicate with students. And we have consolidated with the largest community college in Georgia and now are serving more than 20,000 Associate-degree seeking students.
We are also partnering with other institutions of higher learning. Three years ago, we became a founding member of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of eleven large public research universities that have committed to increasing the number of low-income and first-generation student graduating from our campuses through sharing data, innovation, and best practices. Together with our partner institutions—Texas, Ohio State, Arizona State, Purdue, Central Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, Iowa State, Oregon State, and California Riverside—we are tracking 10,000 low-income and first-generation students over the next four years to assess the impact of proactive, analytics-based advising on graduation rates.
We are proud to be national partner with KIPP not merely because Georgia State and KIPP share a common goal of ensuring the success of the very students that American public education has failed. We also share with KIPP a philosophy. If we stop blaming the students and begin to make fundamental changes to our own practices as educators, the results can be transformative. Carl McCray is living proof of that.