The Transformation

By Timothy M. Renick, PhD    //    Volume 27,  Number 5   //    September/October 2019

A highly enterprising student-support initiative at Georgia State University has eliminated equity gaps among its student population and demonstrated to the higher education sector that it is time to elevate expectations—to recognize that race, ethnicity, and income level are no longer predictors of student success.

Imagine a large public university that has gone through seismic demographic shifts in recent years. In little more than a decade the institution has doubled the number of students it enrolls from underrepresented minority groups, transforming from a student body that was 70 percent white to one that is now more than 70 percent nonwhite. At the same time, the school has doubled the number of low-income students it enrolls: almost 60 percent of its student body is now eligible for federal Pell grants. Test scores have declined, and the average SAT scores of incoming freshmen are down by 30 points since 2011. Additionally, the university’s state appropriations have been slashed by $50 million.

Many readers would assume that I am describing a university in crisis. Who could blame them? When it comes to higher education, the vision of the United States as a land of equal opportunity is far from a reality. Today, an individual in the top quartile of Americans by annual household income is eight times more likely to hold a college degree than an individual in the bottom quartile. Nationally, white students graduate from college at rates more than 10 points higher than Hispanic students and are more than twice as likely to graduate with a four-year degree when compared to African American students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Pell-eligible students nationally have a six-year graduation rate of 39 percent, a rate that is 20 points lower than the national average. To put it simply, a university that enrolls large numbers of nonwhite, low-income students is expected to struggle.

It is time to elevate our expectations. The university I am describing is not hypothetical, nor is it in crisis. It is Georgia State University. Amid the demographic shifts and funding cuts that Georgia State has faced over the past 15 years, the institution has improved its graduation rates by 23 points—among the largest increases in the nation over this period. More than 80 percent of the students who begin at Georgia State are now graduating from college or are still actively enrolled six years later. Graduation rates are up 35 points for Hispanics and 29 points for African Americans. A segregated institution in the 1960s, Georgia State today awards more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other nonprofit college or university in the United States. Pell-eligible students currently represent 58 percent of Georgia State’s undergraduate student population, and this year they graduated at a rate higher than the rate for non-Pell students. In fact, over the past four years, African American, Hispanic, and Pell-eligible students have, on average, all graduated from Georgia State at or above the rates of the student body overall, meaning that race, ethnicity, and income level are no longer predictors of success at Georgia State.

How is this possible? As Georgia State’s vice president for student success, I have directed the campus-wide efforts to transform student outcomes since 2008. While I can confirm that there is no silver bullet—no single intervention or technology that alone brings about transformative change—I can also report that there is nothing mysterious about our approach. It not only is replicable, it is being replicated. Here are a few lessons we have learned:

Admit You Have A Problem. Amid a context in which demographics are changing, SAT scores are dropping, and state appropriations are being slashed, it is easy to assign blame. We will improve our outcomes when public schools start producing better prepared students or when the state stops slashing our appropriations, or so the argument goes. Instead, more than a decade ago we turned the mirror on ourselves. We asked some uncomfortable questions: Are we the problem? How are we complicit in the fact that the majority of our students are dropping out with debt and no degree? We began to use data to analyze the ways in which we were failing our students—both literally and figuratively—and we began to use data to design new interventions to address the problems that we had created. You will not engage in transformative change unless you acknowledge—openly and publicly—that fundamental change is needed.

Invest in Smarter Advising. Seven years ago, we reviewed the effectiveness of academic advising on our campus. The results were sobering. Thousands of students were registering for the “wrong” classes, failing courses, losing scholarships, and dropping out before any advisor reached out to help. With a student body that is among the most diverse and economically challenged in the nation, we knew that we needed to provide students with far more personalized assistance. We needed to make sure that students were staying on track, and we needed to pinpoint exactly when they ran into difficulties—not months after the problem first surfaced but when there was still time to help. We knew what we needed to do. We just didn’t know how to do it.

With no solution to the problem at hand, we collaborated with a vendor, the Education Advisory Board (EAB), to invent one. Using 10 years of Georgia State data—more than two million grades and 140,000 student records—we identified past, recurring academic behaviors that correlated to students struggling. For instance, we found that political science majors who earn an A or B in their first political science course at Georgia State go on to graduate on time at a rate of 75 percent. Political science majors who earn a C in their first course graduate at only a rate of 25 percent. Yet for years we had been doing nothing with the C student but passing him or her on to upper-level work in the field, where whatever weakness resulted in that first C grade would become exacerbated, and the C grade would become Ds and Fs. We asked a simple question: What would happen if we intervened when the problem first surfaced rather than after it had grown? How many additional students could we help to graduate?

The result was a new type of data-based, advising platform that has identified more than 800 problems like the one outlined above. Now, every day, the system searches all of our student-information systems for evidence of any of these 800 actions. Did a student register for the wrong course? Did he or she perform poorly in a prerequisite course? When an alert is triggered, an advisor proactively reaches out to the student, typically within 48 hours. Over the past 12 months we have had more than 58,000 one-on-one meetings with students that were initiated by advisors on the basis of personalized alerts emerging from this advising platform. Thousands of additional students are graduating, and, because students are making fewer mistakes, they are graduating on average half a semester more quickly than they were before we launched the platform—saving students millions of dollars in tuition-and-fee costs.

Meet the Students Where They Are.  As recently as 2015 Georgia State was losing almost 20 percent of its incoming freshman class to “summer melt.”  Summer melt is the attrition that occurs, especially among low-income and first-generation students, in the months between high school graduation and the start of college. In many cases, these fully qualified and admitted students simply fail to navigate the various bureaucratic steps—completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), paying deposits, registering for classes, submitting health records—that are required to start college. Lacking anyone to help them through these steps during the summer months, students end up not matriculating at all. In the past, Georgia State had tried to send these student emails to help them through the required steps; we had hired counselors to answer questions by phone. Too few students availed themselves of the help, and the numbers of our students succumbing to summer melt continued to rise.

In 2016, we became one of the first universities in the nation to deploy an AI-enhanced chatbot in support of student success. With the help of a technology partner, Admit Hub, we launched a texting system that enables incoming students to ask any question and to tap into our knowledge base of more than 2,000 prepared answers to commonly asked questions—all from their smart devices. (Our analysis revealed that only a handful of incoming freshmen do not own smart devices—about two percent. We offer loaner iPads to students who need them.)  We populated the knowledge base with answers to questions that often trip up new students in the summer between graduating from high school and starting college—a time when they have no high school counselors to help them but are not yet college students. How do I complete the FAFSA? What is the difference between a grant and a loan? What do I do if I can’t find or don’t have my immunization records? Students responded in surprising ways. They used the system more heavily at 1:00 a.m. than at 9:00 a.m.—a stinging indictment of our existing business practices. They confided to the chatbot problems that, they told us, they would have never shared with a human being. After all, if your biological father cannot sign the FAFSA because you have not seen him in two years, you do not necessarily want to share this information with a stranger. The chatbot does not judge.

In the three months leading up to the start of the fall 2016 semester incoming freshmen received answers to 200,000 questions via the new platform, with an average response time of six seconds. With the help of the chatbot, we reduced no-shows for the fall term by 37 percent. We are now bringing chatbot technologies to deliver personalized and timely attention to students in the areas of financial aid, course registration, and career services.

Rethink Teaching. 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 receiving nonpassing grades in introductory math courses. It was easy to attribute this to poor math education in Georgia high schools. It was more difficult to acknowledge that the problem was the way we were delivering math instruction—by lecturing at students for three hours a week. So, we completely changed the format, turning all of the 8,000 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 receiving 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.

Help Students Cross the Finish Line. We noticed that every semester more than 1,000 students 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—students running out of eligibility for their grants and loans. 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 was all that stood between them and a degree. So, we decided to help them out with Panther Retention Grants. (The name was inspired by the Georgia State Panthers, the mascot of our NCAA Division I sports teams.) Now, when we see students who are close to graduating fall behind on their tuition payments, we preemptively add money to their accounts—up to $1,500 total, and about $900 on average. This initiative has been transformative. Over the past seven years we have awarded more than 14,000 of these microgrants, and 85 percent of the recipients are graduating.

Partner with Other Universities to Accelerate Progress. Five years ago, Georgia State University became a founding member of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a collaborative group of 11 large public research universities that have committed to increasing the number of low-income and first-generation students graduating from our campuses through sharing data, innovation, and best practices. By means of a series of “scale projects,” we are taking student-success programs that work on one campus and implementing them across all 11 institutions. For instance, I am the lead on a $9-million project funded by the U.S. Department of Education to scale across the UIA the advising initiative that has proven so impactful at Georgia State.  Together with our partner institutions—the University of Texas at Austin; the Ohio State University; Arizona State University; Purdue University; Central Florida University; the University of Kansas; Michigan State University; Iowa State University; Oregon State University; and the University of 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.

It’s about Changing the Institution. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Georgia State’s transformation is that it has not been accomplished through developing special programs for individual student populations: an African American male initiative, a program for Pell students, and so forth. What we have done at Georgia State is to use data to identify institutional obstacles that were tripping up large numbers of students and to change the university for all students. All students benefited from these changes but, not surprisingly, the students who struggled the most under the former bureaucracy were the students who benefitted the most. As a result, we have eliminated equity gaps at Georgia State not through programs targeted at specific demographics but through improved supports for all students regardless of demographics.

While Georgia State has become known for its use of data, I am reminded every day that there are real lives behind every number that we track. We are now graduating 2,800 more students every year than we were just six years ago.

No Excuses. Grounded in data and cutting-edge technologies, these initiatives may seem out of reach for some colleges and universities. They are not. According to a July 2019 article published in Forbes: “Each and every university can replicate the lessons learned by Georgia State by using predictive analytics along with other levers such as proactive and intensive advising. These are tools and strategies that any university can adopt today. No excuses.” (“50 Years after Apollo Landing, Higher Education Needs a Moonshot” by Brandon Busteed, Forbes, July 4, 2019.)

Of course, change is uncomfortable, and reasons can always be found to maintain the status quo. One excuse I often hear is, “Our campus cannot afford to hire more advisors or to invest in predictive analytics or completion grants.” The fact of the matter is that effective, well-implemented student support programs pay for themselves. For every percentage point we raise our student success rates at Georgia State we create more than $3 million in annual revenues from tuition and fees generated by the additional students retained. As a result of increasing our success rates by 23 percentage points, Georgia State is now producing more than $60 million in new revenues every year—far outpacing the cost of the new programs. You need not just take my word here. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) recently completed a series of ROI studies of Georgia State’s programs and arrived at the same conclusion. Even the Panther Retention Grants program, BCG found, runs comfortably in the black. Especially in these times of declining numbers of high school graduates nationally, to do the right thing morally is also to do the prudent thing fiscally.

Another excuse I hear is, “This is good for Georgia State, but our students/faculty/campus are different. These programs will not work for us.” Growing evidence suggests otherwise. We have seen dozens of institutions from all sectors of higher education learn from us, often sending teams to Georgia State to learn firsthand, and then implement these programs on their campuses. Schools as diverse as Morgan State University (an HBCU outside of Baltimore), Middle Tennessee State University (a regional public university), and Indian River State College (a two-year institution in Florida) have all seen dramatic gains in retention and graduation rates.

Perhaps the best test case for the replicability of the Georgia State model came as a result of a policy decision within the state of Georgia. In 2016, the University System of Georgia consolidated Georgia State University with the largest community college in the state, Georgia Perimeter College. Georgia State did not change Perimeter College’s admissions standards, tuition costs, or faculty. Instead, over the past three years, Georgia State has implemented its innovative suite of student-support programs—predictive analytics, proactive advising, retention grants, and so forth—across Perimeter’s five campuses and its more than 18,000 students. The result: In fewer than four years Perimeter College’s graduation rate has almost tripled, and gaps in graduation rates between students of different races, ethnicities, and income levels have nearly been eliminated.

I do not want to suggest that change of this sort comes easily. Georgia State’s transformation took years of work and the sustained commitment of our leadership. Some decisions, such as rethinking how we go about advising, were initially far from popular with some faculty, staff, and deans. In some cases, resources, including funds for retention grants, were committed on the promise that increased revenues would follow. (Fortunately, they did.)

But while such change is inevitably hard work, it is most certainly attainable. Don’t be influenced by those who insist that turning around student-success numbers is beyond the control of colleges and universities or, worse, that demographics are destiny. Georgia State has proven otherwise.

What Georgia State University has accomplished over the past decade is really quite simple. It has used data to deliver common-sense and timely supports for all students at scale. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop thinking of this accomplishment as exceptional and innovative.  It’s time we make it the norm.

To learn more about Georgia State University’s student-success programs, including third-party reports on the results, visit https://success.gsu.edu.

Timothy M. Renick, PhD, is the senior vice president for student success and a professor of religious studies at Georgia State University. 

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