How Georgia State has increased graduation rates and eliminated achievement gaps

October 1, 2018
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GettyImages-496396667 For the past decade, Georgia State University has been at the leading edge of demographic shifts in the southeast. 

“Georgia State has gone through a significant transformation,” said Dr. Timothy Renick, Senior Vice President for Student Success and Professor, Georgia State University. “Our campus is right in the middle of the Martin Luther King District, yet just 15 years ago we were still grossly underserving students of color. We had low graduation rates overall and even lower rates for African American students.” 

However, with some relatively low-cost strategies applied systematically, those numbers have turned around. The university has raised graduation rates by 23 percentage points and closed all achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income level. Not only have graduation rates improved, but they’ve improved most dramatically for the most underserved populations, such as first generation students and students of color. In fact, the university now awards more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other college or university in the nation, effectively doubling its graduation rates for African American students since 2003. In addition, they’ve greatly reduced time to degree -- shaving about half a semester off of the average completion time.

“Hope and possibility”

These impressive improvements weren’t due to of a sudden improvement in the applicant pool or institutional funding: during this period, the institution faced huge cuts in state budget appropriations, doubled the numbers of non-white and low-income students enrolled, and saw a notable drop in standardized test scores among applicants.

“For a lot of campuses, this might be a sign to retreat or point fingers and find someone to blame,” Renick said. “But instead we found a message of hope and possibility, and saw that there were a lot of things in our power to change.”

Leveraging data and technology, the university found ways to deliver personalized attention to students -- 53,000 of them -- at scale. 

“We’re tracking every student every day for over 800 different risk factors,” Renick said. “We’re using predictive analytics to identify what has tripped students up in the past and reaching out proactively to make sure others don’t have the same bad outcomes.”

Early intervention
The new system means advisors are reaching out at the first sign of a misstep, advising students based on their probability of success. 
“Some faculty feared we were creating a system for moving students to easier majors, but in point of fact we’ve seen the opposite,” Renick said. “Since the launch of this program six years ago, our fastest-growing majors are biology and computer science. Students are staying with STEM degrees rather than winding out after a semester or two.”

Examples of interventions include:

Contacting students who drop
. Most institutions don’t systematically reach out when a student first withdraws, possibly waiting until after the semester to talk with the student, if ever. But if a student pays and registers for a class and then leaves it, that’s a clear warning sign of some underlying issue, such as feeling academically overwhelmed or facing personal issues, according to Renick.  And a meeting to diagnose the problem early can make all the difference for that at-risk student.

Context-specific interventions. Another example of early intervention is slightly more complex and less intuitive: reaching out to students getting passing grades.

“Even passing grades can indicate a student at risk,” Renick said. 

Often students won’t self-diagnose a problem when they’re passing. But while a B- in college algebra is an acceptable grade for a humanities major completing their final math requirement, that same grade can spell trouble for an aspiring STEM major. Although a B- may meet the prerequisite to take organic chemistry, it may also be a sign that that student needs stronger math skills.

“Before, this problem may only be identified after the student took upper level STEM courses and received Cs, Ds, or Fs,” Renick said. “Now we’re systematically intervening, having a frank, data-driven conversation with this student, saying ‘Do you know others who got a B- were less likely to complete this degree? Here are some resources for you to take before you take that upper-level organic chemistry course that will help increase your chances of success.’” 

Using a variety of data-analysis tools, some homegrown and some working in partnership with vendors, advisors have had 55,000 one-on-one meetings with at-risk students.

“By doing it at scale we’ve had a huge impact on student success,” Renick said. 

Making a difference

“There are a number of low cost, systematic things we as campuses can do that can make a significant difference for students,” Renick said. “A lot of what we’ve done has a positive ROI, financial benefits that far outweigh the costs.”

Colleagues can come and hear more about these tools and programs in the AACRAO SEM Conference Opening Plenary Presentation “Using Data and Analytics to Eliminate Achievement Gaps.” 

Through a discussion of innovations ranging from chat bots and predictive analytics to meta-majors and completion grants, the session will cover lessons learned from Georgia State’s transformation and outline several practical and low-cost steps that campuses can take to improve outcomes for underserved students.
Learn more about the SEM Conference