Georgia State University (GSU) graduates more black students each year than any other nonprofit school in the country, and has exponentially increased graduation rates for low-income, first-generation, and Latino students as well.
Writing for the Hechinger Report, Nick Chiles shares how GSU managed to close these historic achievement gaps.
Graduation rates at GSU—meaning those who receive a bachelor's degree within six years—for underserved groups:
- Rose from 22% to 54% for Hispanic students between 2003 and 2015;
- Rose from 29% to 57% for black students between 2003 and 2015;
- Rose by 32% for first-generation students between 2010 and 2014; and
- Reached 51% for low-income students in 2014.
To discover how GSU accounts for these achievements, Chiles spoke with dozens of GSU students, faculty, and administrators at the university.
Darryl B. Holloman, GSU's dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs, says a huge part of GSU's achievement is its adaptability.
"At many of the prestigious schools, there's some element of, 'You have to adapt to us.'" Holloman says. "In its newness and brashness, Georgia State—which is just 100 years old, and that's kind of a baby compared to some other institutions—is just brash enough to say, 'No, we can adapt to you.'"
GSU has established a number of different programs that support this adaptability.
For example, GSU is a member of EAB's Student Success Collaborative and uses the platform to analyze student risk factors. This makes it possible for advisors to intervene with students more strategically, coordinate care, and get at-risk students back on track.
Small changes in a student's performance will send an alert to an advisor. GSU calculates that during the 2014-2015 academic year, the system generated over 43,000 advisor meetings.
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"[The advising] motivates you to really try harder, because you know somebody is backing you up," says Jasmine Odum, a sophomore at GSU.
Holloman adds that "many black students often feel isolated and alone—and afraid to seek help because of their desire to prove they can do the work." With an advising program that reaches out to students first, these fears don't become detrimental to student success.
Other GSU programs adapt to students' financial changes. GSU's retention grant program, for instance, offers students modest aid when they are short of money—last year, the school offered these grants to almost 2,000 students.
The Keep HOPE Alive program also targets financial aid changes. If students lose their Georgia HOPE scholarship—which covers tuition for students at Georgia's state schools with a GPA of 3.0 or above—GSU jumps in to help these students lift their GPAs back up.
For at-risk freshmen, GSU also offers a seven-week long preparation course during the summer.
"All these programs reinforce for students at Georgia State that 'You belong here. It's okay for you to be here. We have a culture that supports you,'" says Holloman.
In addition to GSU's advising and financial programs, the institution also employs a high number of black faculty, administrators, and advisors. Roughly 10% of instructors at GSU are black, which exceeds the national average—excluding HBCUs—by six percentage points.
Many of these black staff members were also the first in their families to graduate college, says Bernard McCrary, the director of GSU's Black Student Achievement office. McCrary says this helps first-generation students because "[these staff members] have gone through it or had family members go through it... and will do everything in their power to make sure the students they service are successful."
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Zuwena Green, a senior biology major at GSU, says, "When you see people who look like you and they have succeeded, it helps you academically."
Many black students at GSU reported feeling they had the "best of both worlds," writes Chiles. They have the cultural support usually unique to HBCUs, but yet they have the diversity and resources of a bigger state school.
"We've repeatedly seen how some schools are making great gains with first-generation and underrepresented populations by leveraging members of the campus community to reemphasize that these students really do belong and can succeed in college," explains Ed Venit, a senior director of EAB's Student Success Collaborative.
"The black community here is more involved in the campus than you would think," adds Odum. "They're the ones in the Greek organizations and the campus clubs and athletic clubs."
McCrary hopes other institutions will follow GSU's path and "pull up kids that may be first-generation or from financially distressed backgrounds, kids the system has traditionally said are not going to make it" (Chiles, Hechinger Report, 11/25).
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