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Outliers
Putting students first
This university boosted its graduation rate by 22 points in 10 years and eliminated the achievement gap.
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This fall more than 2 million students will flock to U.S. universities and colleges to begin their first year of higher education. They’ll arrive on campus with the goal of obtaining a degree, a proven ticket to a life of higher income and better opportunity.

But here’s a sobering statistic that should concern us all: Based on the latest college completion trends, only about half of all those students (54.8 percent) will leave college with a diploma. The rest—most of them low-income, first-generation, and minority students—will not finish a degree. They’ll drop out.  

This is tragic. Not just for the students and their families, but for our nation. Without more graduates, our country will face a shortage of skilled workers and fewer low-income families will get the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

That’s why I’m constantly on the lookout for colleges and universities that somehow defy these odds—places where students are more likely to graduate than not, regardless of race or income.

Georgia State University is one of the institutions that has achieved this goal.

I visited Georgia State University (GSU) earlier this year and was amazed by what I learned. An urban university serving low-income and minority students, GSU struggled with dismal graduation rates. Just over a decade ago, GSU’s overall graduation rate was 32 percent. Among Hispanic students, it was 22 percent. Among African Americans, 29 percent.

Today, the university’s graduation rate tops 54 percent, a 22-point improvement, among the highest increases in the nation during this period. What’s more, there is no achievement gap at GSU. African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students all graduate at rates at or above those of the student body overall. GSU is one of the only public universities in the country to achieve this goal. And over the last four years, GSU has conferred more degrees to African Americans than any other college or university in the U.S.

How did GSU do it? It didn’t take the easy route by shutting out at-risk students and cherry picking the brightest applicants. In fact, the university accepted more “at-risk” students—low-income, minority, and academically struggling—than ever.

Instead, GSU worked to understand the challenges of college from a student’s perspective. What obstacles prevent students from getting a degree? And how could GSU help students overcome them?

GSU’s key insight was that there isn’t a single, big reason that leads to students dropping out. It’s dozens of smaller things that disrupt their journey to graduation. For the GSU administration, digging into these challenges was a humbling experience. They realized that there were many things that they could be doing better to serve all their students.

“Students come to school with their hopes and their dreams and their families are investing heavily. We want to make sure that Georgia State is not the cause of them not finishing—that we have done everything that we can to create the kind of environment where they can be retained, where they can progress, and where they can ultimately graduate,” says Allison Calhoun-Brown, associate vice president for student success at GSU.

So GSU redesigned the entire student experience from admissions to graduation, clearing a path for them to fulfill their goal of obtaining a degree.

One of the most remarkable changes is how they have reimagined student advising. The university realized it was sitting on a mountain of data about its students—data that could be used to better serve them. Poring over 140,000 student records, 2.5 million grades, and other data, the university identified 800 different behaviors that correlated with dropping out. For example, if a political science major gets a “C” in an introductory political science course, their chances of graduating fall to 25 percent. Using this information, advisers are now able to identify the students who need assistance—often before the students know it themselves. Now, when that political science major gets a “C”, an academic adviser receives an alert to meet with the student. As part of this effort, the university hired more advisers to reach out to students on a one-to-one basis. It wasn’t simply a technology fix. The human element has been critical to its success.

Here are some of the other obstacles students were running into, and how GSU removed them:

Summer Melt: Every year, high school graduates across the country who have taken the SATs, applied to college, and accepted offers of admission don’t show up for classes in the fall. This phenomenon is so common that educators have dubbed it “the summer melt.” GSU found that prospective students got confused about completing financial aid forms, signing up for classes, and navigating other requirements to enroll.

Solution: A mobile-phone based virtual assistant that would send reminders, deadline information, and answer thousands of questions about entering GSU from “When is my tuition due?” to “How do I register for classes?” and even stranger questions like, “Can I bring my pet salamander to my dorm?” In a trial phase of this new technology, the summer melt rate among its users declined more than 20 percent.

Unprepared Students: Half of incoming students with the weakest academic records were dropping out of GSU their first year.

Solution: A seven-week summer session before fall classes for these at-risk students to get oriented to life on campus, take college-level courses, and get introduced to the school’s tutoring and advising services. The retention rate for first-year students enrolled in the program shot up to 87 percent. 

Financial Need: Many of the students who stopped for a semester because of unmet financial need—often a shortfall of a few hundred dollars—would never return to college.

Solution: Micro grants to students to cover modest tuition and fee shortfalls. In return, the students met with financial counselors to get them on track to finance the rest of their education. Students who have received the grants have higher retention and graduation rates than the rest of the student body.   

Too Many Choices: Look through any course list at a major university and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices offered for classes and majors.

Solution:  Instead of declaring a major, students decide on one general area academic interest or what’s called a “meta-major”: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), business, arts and humanities, etc. Once students have selected their meta-major, they are assigned a block course schedule. This gives students a clear direction and ensures they earn credits that will count toward a degree even as they are still deciding on a specific major. They’re also assigned to a learning community of 25 students who are in the same meta major, creating an instant group of peers who share a common interest and can study together.

Other colleges and universities have a lot to learn from Georgia State University. It’s no surprise that the university has received dozens of visits by administrators from other institutions wanting to understand GSU’s innovations and adopt them on their own campuses.

If the data and examples don’t convince visitors that what GSU is doing is special, meeting its students will. Sitting down with a group of undergraduates and recent graduates was the most inspiring part of my visit.

Fortune Onwuzuzruike, for example, who graduated from GSU earlier this year, told me how he entered the Summer Success Academy as a first-year student. It was an experience that gave him the opportunity to get a jumpstart on his college career and encouraged him to take full advantage of everything on campus. He is now working in health care information systems, but plans to go to graduate school in business and health administration.

“They do a really good job of connecting the dots for you and actually helping you move forward so you can find out what you want to do in this life,” he said.

I also met Austin Birchell, who just completed his freshmen year. A first-generation student whose family has struggled financially, Austin was worried about being successful in college, especially with no family or relative who had ever been to college to help guide him. But thanks to the meta-major program and other supports, he says he easily transitioned from the “small pond” of high school to the “ocean” of college. This fall he is signed up to be a tour guide to introduce prospective students to his university.

“I’ll be selling them the college and telling them why they should come here. And I’ll truly do it with a passion, because I love this college,” he says.

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