Georgia State University is closing achievement gaps and confounding expectations

Georgia State University has eliminated all achievement gaps for undergraduate students. Tim Renick, Vice Provost and Vice President of Enrollment Management, shared some of their student success strategies at CPE’s Student Success Summit on April 4, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Located in the heart of Atlanta, GSU is an urban, public research university that enrolls about 32,000 undergraduate students. On the surface, there is not much to distinguish it from other universities with similar characteristics. Yet, while the average six-year graduation rate at U.S. public universities is 22 points lower for African-American students and 10 points lower for Hispanic students[1], GSU boasts a 58 percent graduation rate for African-American and Hispanic students, slightly higher than the rate for white students.

How did they do it?

Your first guess might be higher admissions standards and generous merit scholarships. Guess again. With an acceptance rate of around 58 percent, GSU actually has become less selective than it once was. Nearly 60 percent of their students are Pell-eligible, and over half are underrepresented minority students. The average composite ACT score for the freshmen class is around 22.

Your next guess might be large investments in student services. While it’s true GSU in recent years has invested more heavily in student services, partially by growing its endowment 20 percent, this growth has not offset state budget cuts. Since the recession, GSU has lost $40 million in state appropriations. To spend more on student services, GSU had to cut spending in other areas and find savings through cost efficiencies.

Tim Renick, Georgia State University
Tim Renick, Georgia State University, speaks at the Kentucky Student Success Summit.

Tim Renick, vice provost and vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Success, shared GSU’s recipe for closing achievement gaps at the Student Success Summit last week. Their story begins with data analytics, but it doesn’t end there. A number of high-impact practices and technological innovations have bolstered GSU’s effectiveness and reputation. Key ingredients include:

  • Digital platforms that communicate with students in real time—Once students are admitted to GSU, they register with a web-based portal that provides checklists for every step of the matriculation process. A smart-phone app continuously sends personalized text messages to students who opt in to the service for as long as they’re at GSU. Within the first three months of purchasing the app, over 200,000 knowledge-based texts were sent to students reminding them of application deadlines, tests, and other events and appointments. Renick said they purchased the “chatbot” from a company called Admitbot for a one-time cost of about $25,000. So far, it’s reduced summer melt (students who enroll but never show up for their first semester) by 22 percent, allowing the university to capture thousands of additional tuition dollars.
  • A summer success academy for at-risk freshmen—GSU uses data analytics to pinpoint around 400 incoming students each year most at risk of dropping out. These students are required to enroll in the summer term before their first semester and earn seven credit hours toward their bachelor’s degree. The financial aid office coordinates with the admissions office to ensure students’ aid packages cover the cost of the summer term. Offering these students enhanced academic advising and supports in the summer helps them catch up with their peers and increases their confidence. Sprinkling these students in with the general student population enables them to interact with upperclassmen, who can show them the ropes and make them feel at home in a college setting.
  • Implementing meta-majors—GSU once required students to declare a major at the end of their first year, thinking this would reduce excessive credit accumulation. Unfortunately, that practice led to increased changes of major—the average student was cycling through 2.5 majors and extending their time to degree. Now, students work with advisors to take interest inventories and identify a meta-major (business, education, STEM, arts and humanities, health professions, or policy/social science) by the end of their first year. Academic guides describe all of the possible majors and careers within each meta-major, and live job data gives students information about current job openings in the Atlanta area and average starting salaries. This practice has reduced major changes 32 percent in two years, and average credit hours earned at completion has fallen from 138 to 133.
  • The use of flipped classrooms—Students in flipped classrooms watch lectures online as homework and use class time to work through problems, either in a computer lab or small-group setting. The instructor acts as a facilitator, working one-on-one with students as questions arise. Since adopting this model for introductory math classes, failure rates have dropped 35 percent.
  • Retention grants for needy seniors—GSU discovered a number of seniors were leaving school before completion after running out of financial aid eligibility. Even a modest grant of $900 (the average amount of a Panther Retention Grant) was enough to get these students to the finish line. By redistributing some of their institutional aid, GSU was able to award retention grants to select seniors without even requiring an application. They simply credit the grant to their accounts.

These are just a sampling of practices that earned GSU the number four spot on the list of most innovative universities compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Despite the upfront investment, Renick says these improvements have more than paid for themselves. For each one-point increase in retention, GSU captures $3.18 million in continuing revenues. That, Renick concludes, is money well spent.

[1] National Center for Education Statistics, “Graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, for the cohort starting in 2008.”