How GSU raised its graduation rate by 15 percentage points

Students benefitted from early interventions and financial assistance

Instead of simply recruiting higher-achieving students, Georgia State University (GSU) boosted its low graduation rates by looking inward to determine the factors holding students back, David Kirp writes for the New York Times.

Ten years ago, GSU's graduation rate hovered at 41% and the school suffered from wide racial gaps. Since then, the university has made significant progress—GSU's overall graduation rate has risen to 56% and minority, first-generation, and low-income students are earning degrees at a higher rate than white students.

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

"Despite the conventional wisdom, demographics are not destiny," says Timothy Renick, GSU's vice president for enrollment management and student success. "Rather than blaming the students, we took a hard look in the mirror."

A surprising discovery leads to new advising practices

First, GSU evaluated data from millions of grades to spot red flags. Administrators uncovered a few surprises. Notably, advisors previously thought that students merely needed to pass introductory courses in their majors to be on track for graduation.

But after the analysis, they discovered that the actual letter grade makes a big difference. For example, a student who earns a B in a first-year political science course has a 70% probability of graduating in that field, but a classmate who receives a C has only a 25% probability of doing the same.

"Following our initial work with GSU, we run these analyses for each member of the Student Success Collaborative," says Ed Venit, senior director at EAB.

"As it turns out, nearly every major at every school has at least one course in which a passing grade of C is actually a really strong indicator of concern.  It's a widespread phenomenon that most schools hadn't spotted on their own."

After the discovery, GSU leaders required students who earned a C grade for an early course in their major to meet with an academic advisor for extra help. Advisors now contact students at the first sign of academic trouble, holding around 50,000 meetings with students each year.

While some faculty worried that this requirement would push students into less-challenging fields, computer science and biology are the fastest-growing majors at GSU.

Two groups of students have much better outcomes

GSU leaders have seen particularly good results from students who struggle in math courses. In 2009, 43% of students taking required college algebra and pre-calculus classes received D's or F's, meaning they had to retake the class and also lost their state scholarships.

After the analysis, GSU administrators revamped the courses from lectures to classes in which students spent substantial time in a computer lab, allowing for immediate online feedback and access to instructors. Under the new system, the number of students receiving D's and F's fell to 19%.

Also see: How GSU saved an estimated $3 million by retaining students

GSU leaders also found that first-generation and low-income students were not as likely to seek help from their professors, so the university hired upperclassmen to tutor them. Students who went to at least three tutoring sessions performed half a letter grade better and increased their likelihood of graduating by 10%.

Students get a leg up financially

Besides academic struggles, finances were also found to be a roadblock to many students' success. Nearly 1,000 students dropped out each semester because they could not pay tuition, but were often short just a few hundred dollars. GSU sought to help students make up the difference with just-in-time grants and financial counseling and last year, about 400 students who would have dropped out received their degrees.

"Those grants aren't just financial lifesavers. They also change attitudes," Renick says. "For students who never thought anyone was watching out for them, it has meant a lot for the university to say, 'We want you to graduate.'"

How strong is your advising program? Use this short diagnostic to find out

And even though the state cut $40 million from the GSU budget during the recession, the school gained an additional $18.9 million in annual revenue by improving its student retention efforts (Kirp, New York Times, 4/30).

How GSU got to where it is today

Georgia State University has 16 different programs focused on student retention and graduation. But in the last few years, the institution has focused on creating a "culture where numbers matter"—translating millions of pieces of data into student programs and interventions that are advancing student success metrics.

Which numbers matter? The university saves $3,000,000 for every 1% improvement in retention rate, and they anticipate hitting a graduation rate of 60% by 2021.

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