What's behind Georgia State University's success? Scientific method and big data

'Very few universities actually do experiments to see what works'

An anomaly in higher education, Georgia State University (GSU) graduates its Pell-eligible and non-Pell students at the same rate.

The institution enrolled 33,000 students in fall 2014 and 25,000 were undergraduates. The school grew 50% since 2000, and it is absorbing another 21,000 when it merges with two-year Georgia Perimeter College in January.

About one-third of GSU's undergraduates are first-generation and more than half qualify for Pell grants. The fact that the school is able to graduate these students at the same rate as its non-Pell students has garnered attention, Nick Anderson writes for the Washington Post.

GSU President Mark Becker credits his school's use of big data.

"We teach the scientific method all the time," he says. "But very few universities actually do experiments to see what works."

10 innovative student success programs

When GSU looks to implement a new student success initiative, they run trials complete with control groups. For example, one group of students at risk of losing financial aid because their grades dipped were each given small grants of up to $500 and tutors—and it worked.

The institution also uses predictive analytics software from EAB to intervene before students begin seriously struggling. 

Learn more about how GSU used our software to improve student success

For instance, the software can crunch a decade's worth of data to determine whether a specific student earning a less than a B-plus in a certain class puts him or her at risk of not succeeding in his or her major. Advisers are alerted, and a discussion takes place.

"We don't tell them they have to change their major," Becker says, but advisers have "informed conversations" about the student's skills and direct them toward support.  "We do these things proactively, rather than reacting."

In the last year, there were 42,000 meetings between students and advisers.  

The future of data

Becker says he wants to harness big data to help students make financial decisions as well. "The most at-risk students have the least experience with managing money," he says.

He also predicts the "Amazonification of higher education," being able to foretell what classes students are interested in and offering them. Essentially, he says, "personalizing, at scale" (Anderson, "Grade Point," The Washington Post, 10/1).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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