Many of us remember being told as college freshmen: “Look to your left, look to your right. In four years one of you won’t be here.”
It is time to put an end to that mentality, which cripples our nation economically and saddles too many students with debt and no degree. Our nation will suffer if we continue with this model in which a sizable fraction of students is expected to drop out of college. For too long, low graduation rates, particularly for low-income and first-generation students, have been accepted as “just the way it is.” Nationally, just over half of the students who enroll in our colleges and universities graduate within six years, and the percentages are much worse for low-income and first-generation students. It does not have to be that way.
A little over a decade ago, Georgia State University’s graduation rate hovered around 32 percent, and underserved populations were foundering. Students on Pell Grants were graduating at rates far below those of non-Pell students. In other words, our graduation rates were typical of universities with considerable racial, ethnic, and economic diversity.
Recognizing the need for transformative change, the university made a commitment to student success and in 2008 established an office focused on student retention and graduation—the first of its kind in Georgia and one of the first in the country. That commitment was bolstered in 2011 with the implementation of our university strategic plan. Success among all students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, was established as the university’s first and most important goal. Using data proactively, we identified critical obstacles to our students’ progress, piloted innovative interventions, and scaled the approaches that proved most successful.
We now have in place more than a dozen student success initiatives that are making an enormous impact because they range across an institution of 50,000 students. Many of these initiatives affect tens of thousands of students every semester, and fit together to create seamless support for our students.
Our Graduation Progression Success advising system was built using 10 years of Georgia State data and more than 2.5 million grades to develop predictive analytics that enable us to identify when our students take actions that put them at risk of going off track for graduation. The system identifies individuals who are at risk when a problem first surfaces, not after it has become so serious that recovery will be expensive or impossible. We track every student each day on 800 different risk factors, ranging from students who register for classes that do not apply to their degree programs to those who underperform in prerequisite courses. When a problem is identified, an alert goes off and the adviser assigned to the student reaches out to help, typically within 48 hours. Last year at Georgia State, we had more than 49,000 one-on-one meetings between advisers and students.
Our Summer Success Academy reaches out to at-risk freshmen, putting them in college-level coursework before the fall semester and supporting them with intensive advisement, academic skills workshops, and financial literacy training. Freshmen-to-sophomore retention of these high-risk students has risen from 50 percent to 87 percent with this program, putting it on par with the general student population.
Just a few years ago, the university was dropping about 1,000 students each semester because they could not cover the cost of their tuition and fees, often with balances of as little as $300. We piloted a Panther Retention Grant program to issue small, one-time grants cover the balance so students can return to class. It has been shown that students who stop out are unlikely to return. The awarding of these grants is strategic. We use analytics to ensure they have financial need and are applying themselves academically. Since 2012, that program has brought 7,200 students back to class, and about 70 percent of the seniors who received them have graduated.
Recognizing that many more students leave college for financial reasons than for academic failures, we will soon open a student financial management center to proactively identify financial issues that can be barriers to graduation and to help students address them. This financial risk program will mirror our Graduation Progression Success advising system by combining technology with human interaction to deliver timely, personalized advice to students.
While simple in approach, these and other similar interventions have made a big difference. Georgia State now graduates 1,700 more students annually than it did five years ago and confers more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any nonprofit college or university in the nation. Our graduation rate has climbed 22 percentage points overall, with the biggest gains being enjoyed by the student populations that once struggled the most. Black and Latino graduation rates have improved by more than 30 points each. Rates for black males are up 40 points, and achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and economics have been eliminated. Furthermore, although roughly 60 percent of Georgia State students are Pell eligible, more than 75 percent of the students who matriculate as first-time freshmen now graduate from either Georgia State or another institution within six years. Those numbers crush the national averages and are off the charts for an institution with our level of racial, ethnic, and income diversity.
There is no magic bullet to addressing the complex challenge of driving graduation rates significantly higher. A comprehensive commitment to student success is required, and that means using data to identify barriers to student success, piloting interventions to eliminate those barriers, and implementing at scale those programs that prove to be effective. With this approach we are creating a model that levels the playing field for all students. Graduation must be the expected outcome for every student we enroll, not a product of economic status and not a game of chance. Our nation’s future hinges on it.