Improving Graduation Rates at Georgia State University

Retaining students from enrollment through graduation is an escalating concern in higher education. Institutions serving a large percentage of students who are the first in their families to attend college face additional challenges to helping students complete their degrees.

One university is appropriating what they call high-touch technology strategies to aid in student success.

One of the most diverse institutions in the southeast, Georgia State University (GSU) is a large public university serving 52,000 students in downtown Atlanta. About 60% of their students are Pell eligible, meaning low income students, and roughly 67% are non-white.

Dr. Timothy Renick, Sr. Vice President for Student Success at Georgia State University, came on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the tech-enabled high-touch strategies that have helped raise their 6-year graduation rate from 32% to 54%.

“We’ve always knows that one of the things students respond to well is individualized personalized attention,” Tim told us. Over the last decade, GSU has been leverage technology to deliver much more personalized services to students on a day to day basis.

How Peer Tutoring Can Ramp Up Graduation Rates

It starts with the data. GSU identified the tripping points, those courses that students often fail or withdraw from. Then, the school located the students who succeeded in those same courses, especially students already supported by the university on work study.

“What we do now,” Tim said, “is pull them out of their current assignments. We pay them to go through training. We pay them to sit in on the same class they succeeded in the past. We pay them to do three formal instructional sessions every week.”

Students are much more likely to go to a peer, who often looks more like they do and comes from a similar background. GSU has seen bumps of about half a letter grade in courses where we embed these peer and near peer tutors.

Not only are students doing better, but the peer tutors are doing better, too. Their graduation rates have gone up by about 7 percentage points, because, instead of sitting around answering phones, they’re actually being mentored by a faculty member in the course and helping students understand subject matter.

Flipping Introductory Courses for Student Retention

Six or seven years ago, 43% of GSU students who attempted introductory math courses were not passing. That’s a recipe for disaster at a big institution where the majority of students are low income, because low income students can’t afford to take the same course over and over.

GSU addressed the problem by removing the lecture-hall style math course. Today, all the courses are flipped hybrid classes, meaning the students meet one hour a week in a traditional classroom with their classmates and instructor. Three hours a week they’re meeting in dedicated math labs, working at their own terminals at their own pace on adaptive learning exercises.

“I think the biggest secret,” Tim said, “is that every hour a student is in one of these labs, they’re getting about 100 bits of immediate personalized feedback.”

This approach has improved passing grades by 35% as well as increased the number of STEM majors graduating from GSU.

How to Prevent Major Switching

Tim pulled no punches telling us about this. “It’s a design flaw. We enroll this increasingly diverse student body, lots of first generation, low income, students. We would bring them into this campus where we brag about the fact that we have over 100 majors, and then we would just expect them to choose and choose wisely.”

Students don’t have the experience to select a major early and stick with it. For low income students, this, in many cases, was their ticket out of higher education, because they’re on limited eligibility, limited aid programs.

“We totally changed the way we onboard students now,” Tim said. GSU created a new portal in which students select a major and instantly see the number of related jobs in the metro Atlanta area for that morning as well as their starting salaries.

GSU also enrolls all students in the first semester in learning communities arranged around meta-majors. They get groups of 25 students who share a large area of interest. While the university is not trying to get students to pick an actual major, by the end of the first year, the students are able to make a much more informed choice about what field they want to go into.

Leveraging resources and registering students in this slightly different way has resulted in a 32% drop in the number of students at GSU who are changing their majors after the first year.

Advice for Launching a Graduation Rate Increase

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” Tim told us. “What you need to do is think about being smarter in the way you deploy the resources that you have.”

Much of GSU’s initiative costs nothing. It’s just been a more efficient way of organizing the students as they come into the university, and it’s provide a platform for faculty who already wanted to engage these students by their areas of interests.

It’s nice to have the resources to invest in analytics and hire more advisors, but that needn’t be the starting point. The starting point can just be, “How can we look at what we’re currently doing that is tripping up students?”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Timothy Renick from Georgia State University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.