Georgia State University Showing Success at Raising Graduation Rates Via a Personalized Approach

Story by
Gary Stern

Write here...Only 53 percent of college freshmen earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The longer students linger in college, the less their chances are of graduating. To raise its graduation rates, Georgia State University (GSU), an Atlanta, Georgia-based state college with a 63 percent minority population, introduced a strategic program. 
By establishing a personalized approach combined with an analytical component, GSU raised graduation rates by 22 percentage points, among the highest increases in the nation. In fact, graduation rates spiked 32 percent for Latino students to 54 percent graduating within six years and rose 28 percentage points for African-Americans to 57 percent. What’s the secret sauce?

Frequently first-generation minority students who are often low-income don’t have the support systems that middle-class students rely on.

The program relies on intensive analytical data but revolves around one-on-one advising to steer students in the right direction and forestall dropping out. Timothy Renick, GSU’s vice provost and vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Success, describes its approach as “high tech and high touch.” 
GSU’s student success program launched in 2012. It employs “predictive analytics and a system of more than 800 alerts to track all undergraduates daily, identify at-risk behaviors and have advisors respond to alerts by intervening in a timely fashion to get students back on track.” It anticipates problems rather than reacts to a student mired in trouble or about to drop out when it’s often too late. In fact, during the 2015-16 semesters, advisers conducted 49,000 meetings with students. 

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GSU focused on “developing personalized attention and intervention to students on scale,” Renick explained. Students who attend small, liberal arts colleges often receive personalized advising from a faculty member or counselor, which GSU replicates on a large scale to its 51,000 students. 
Its goal was to close the achievement gap for all students while ensuring that minority students graduate in higher numbers. “The students who suffer the most are the ones who need that intervention the most,” Renick noted. Frequently first-generation minority students who are often low-income don’t have the support systems that middle-class students rely on.
Because there are innumerable reasons why students falter, its analytical system, updated daily, searches for one of 800 trigger points or factors that could lead to dropping out. Advisers are notified, and the student is contacted either via e-mail or text or, depending on the severity, might be asked to come in for a session.
For example, Renick observes that students who receive an A in their initial class in their major graduate at a 75 percent rate, but those awarded a C graduate at a 25 percent clip. The student who received a C in their major is reached and meets with an adviser who does an assessment that could suggest a tutor or attending the college’s writing center. “They may be advised to take another course before they try upper level courses,” he said.
Many students enroll in a course that doesn’t fit them academically. “We have 3,000 courses, and students may be choosing the wrong chemistry course,” Renick asserted.
To provide this intensive advising, GSU doubled the number of its advisers. Yet Renick acknowledges that the college lost $40 million in state funding from 2008 through 2012. “We’re not getting additional funding,” he said. 
Allocating resources in this way makes good financial sense. “For every one percent we increase retention rather than dropping out that’s worth $3 million in state revenue,” he said. Retaining students results in increased tuition fees, so there’s a cost benefit in hiring more advisers. When asked why GSU has been successful in spiking graduation rates for Latinos and African-Americans, Renick was reluctant to offer a pat, simplistic response. “We want to look at every student as an individual,” he said. For example, the Latino journalism major with strong verbal skills faces different issues than the Cuban-born chemistry major who needs strengthening in math. Latino students hail from these top five countries: Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and El Salvador.
Because financial difficulties are another major bugaboo or factor for dropping out, GSU provides financial literacy for students in their freshman year. “We help them and their families make better financial decisions,” Renick said. A freshman who lives at home rather than the dorm can save money and avoid financial problems during the junior year.
GSU found that minor financial setbacks could lead to dropping out. It established the Panther Retention Grants, which provide an average of $900 with a maximum of $1,500 to offset an emergency to pay tuition and bills. In 2015-16, nearly 2,000 Georgia State students returned to the classroom having received these grants rather than having to take a leave or dropping out.
This emergency funding “pays for itself,” Renick revealed. Donors love the program because it’s manageable, relies on smaller donations and sees concrete results. He says it operates like “preventive medicine” to keep students in college. Once they take a leave, it’s much harder to woo them back to college.
Since so many high school students face problems adjusting to college, GSU created the Success Academy, a summer workshop designed for incoming students who face academic risk based on academic metrics such as high school grades, test scores and performance in math and science. 
In the summer of 2016, 420 students participated in the academy. It helps students facing a new environment “making choices unmonitored by parents, choosing their own schedules and often deciding on how to manage their time, money and competing options,” he said. In 2015-16, the one-year retention rate for Success Academy graduates was 87 percent, a significant increase over the 50 percent 2012 retention rate.
Representatives from over 200 colleges have visited GSU to learn about their retention programs. Renick says if a college wanted to replicate it they should follow three basic steps: 1) pay attention to data, 2) ensure you have a structure in place the minute you introduce the program, 3) build and develop it on scale, so it can address 30,000 students not just 100.    
Renick says the program has thrived because “By warning students when they first get off path, we help them to get back on track. The key to our progress has been delivering personalized help to all students in many cases before the student even knows that they are at risk.” •