The Intuitive but Innovative Secret Behind 1 University’s Turnaround

Could it be as simple as paying smart students to help struggling students?

n this July 20, 2011 photo, people walk on the campus at Wayne State University in Detroit. Facing a deadline this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has pledged to ask an entire federal appeals court to suspend and re-examine a landmark decision that overturned the stateís ban on affirmative action in collegeadmissions. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Sept. 23, 2013, 6:22 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a spe­cial weeklong series on in­nov­at­ive pro­grams and ideas that are im­prov­ing Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion.

Geor­gia State Uni­versity should be fa­cing an aca­dem­ic crisis. It serves sev­er­al demo­graph­ics that Amer­ic­an high­er edu­ca­tion has largely been fail­ing: 56 per­cent of the uni­versity’s 32,000 stu­dents re­ceive fed­er­al Pell Grants, 60 per­cent are non­white, and 30 per­cent are first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents. But at this uni­versity in down­town At­lanta, minor­ity stu­dents — in de­fi­ance of na­tion­al trends — are ac­tu­ally more likely to gradu­ate than white stu­dents.

Geor­gia State has boos­ted its gradu­ation rate by 22 points over the past dec­ade, even though state spend­ing per stu­dent has shrunk and the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion has grown poorer and more di­verse. The uni­versity has found low-cost ways to give stu­dents more one-on-one at­ten­tion at a lower cost, ran­ging from age-old peer tu­tor­ing pro­grams to new data ana­lys­is. “First-gen­er­a­tion, low-in­come stu­dents some­times need more per­son­al­ized help to get them through early courses as they’re try­ing to fig­ure out what col­lege ex­pect­a­tions are all about,” says Timothy Ren­ick, a pro­fess­or and an as­so­ci­ate prov­ost for aca­dem­ic pro­grams.

The dirty little secret of Amer­ic­an high­er edu­ca­tion is that it’s really good at pro­tect­ing priv­ilege and less good at en­sur­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity. There’s a 45-per­cent­age-point gap between the share of wealthy stu­dents and poor stu­dents who com­plete bach­el­or’s de­grees, ac­cord­ing to Uni­versity of Michigan re­search­ers. White stu­dents out­per­form His­pan­ics in B.A. com­ple­tion by 12 points and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans by 23 points, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al stat­ist­ics, and first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents are less likely to at­tend and gradu­ate from col­lege than stu­dents with col­lege-edu­cated par­ents. Over­all, just 56 per­cent of U.S. stu­dents who en­roll in a four-year de­gree pro­gram gradu­ate in six-years.

Geor­gia State’s gradu­ation rate, at about 53 per­cent, is be­low the na­tion­al av­er­age. But it’s way above the gradu­ation rate at com­par­able urb­an re­search uni­versit­ies, such as Clev­e­land State or the Uni­versity of Texas (San Ant­o­nio). And here, there is no achieve­ment gap. Stu­dents who re­ceive need-based fed­er­al Pell Grants are as likely to gradu­ate as those who don’t. Sixty-six per­cent of Latino and 57 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents gradu­ate with­in six years, com­pared with 51 per­cent of whites. 

Memusi Ntore, a ju­ni­or at GSU, is on the front lines of the uni­versity’s ef­forts to boost aca­dem­ic achieve­ment. The semester after he re­ceived an A+ in Cal­cu­lus 1, Ntore was hired to lead study ses­sions for the course. As a Sup­ple­ment­al In­struc­tion lead­er, he an­swers ques­tions and mod­er­ates small group dis­cus­sion among stu­dents strug­gling with cal­cu­lus. Courses that have ad­ded these SI ses­sions have seen scores jump by an av­er­age of half a let­ter grade. Last year, 9,000 of the uni­versity’s stu­dents at­ten­ded SI ses­sions.  

Geor­gia State began the SI pro­gram in the mid-1990s to com­bat the high rate of D grades, fail­ures, and with­draw­als in re­quired in­tro­duct­ory courses. In some tar­geted courses, which stu­dents need to pass to gradu­ate, as many as half of stu­dents were fail­ing. For the 74 per­cent of stu­dents de­pend­ent on the state’s Hope schol­ar­ship, which is con­tin­gent on main­tain­ing a 3.0 GPA, fail­ing entry-level courses can mean los­ing the abil­ity to pay for col­lege.

It would have cost the uni­versity mil­lions of dol­lars to hire pro­fes­sion­al tu­tors to do this work, Ren­ick says, but re­cruit­ing and train­ing 300 stu­dent lead­ers like Ntore costs al­most noth­ing. SI lead­ers lead ses­sions for courses in which they’ve earned at least an A. Their wages are sup­por­ted by fed­er­al work study, GSU’s need-based work pro­gram, and found­a­tion funds.

New data-ana­lys­is tech­no­logy has giv­en Geor­gia State an­oth­er tool for identi­fy­ing points where stu­dents struggle. The uni­versity ana­lyzed some 2 mil­lion his­tor­ic grades and modeled how per­form­ance in one class might pre­dict per­form­ance later on. Data showed that, not sur­pris­ingly, stu­dents needed to do well in found­a­tion­al courses for their chosen ma­jor to avoid strug­gling in high­er-level classes. SI was sub­sequently ad­ded to classes like In­tro­duc­tion to Ac­count­ing.

The data shaped a Web-based track­ing sys­tem that alerts ad­visers every time a stu­dent makes a choice that could put him or her offtrack for gradu­ation — such as fail­ing to sign up for a re­quired class. At Geor­gia State, each ad­viser is re­spons­ible for 300-odd stu­dents, and the track­ing sys­tem makes it much easi­er for ad­visers to tar­get their out­reach. Pro­grams like SI also make ad­viser’s jobs easi­er by tak­ing away the stigma of ask­ing for help, says Bradly Blitz, as­sist­ant dir­ect­or in the uni­versity ad­vise­ment cen­ter.

Geor­gia State’s re­ten­tion ef­forts don’t stop there. Last year, an in­tens­ive ori­ent­a­tion pro­gram for in­com­ing stu­dents deemed at-risk for drop­ping out led pro­gram par­ti­cipants to earn high­er grades than the gen­er­al stu­dent pop­u­la­tion dur­ing their fresh­man year. For one in­tro­duct­ory course, col­lege al­gebra, the uni­versity has in­ves­ted in in ad­apt­ive learn­ing soft­ware. In ad­di­tion to a weekly lec­ture, the 7,500 stu­dents who take the course each year spend two class ses­sions in a com­puter lab, mov­ing through ma­ter­i­al at their own pace un­der an in­struct­or’s guid­ance. Since the uni­versity in­tro­duced the hy­brid mod­el, the rate of stu­dents earn­ing a D or F, or with­draw­ing from the course, has dropped from 43 per­cent to 21 per­cent.

An as­pir­ing math teach­er, Ntore knows there’s one thing teach­ers can do that com­puter pro­grams can’t: set an ex­ample. “I didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me do­ing math,” the At­lanta-raised son of Kenyan im­mig­rants says of his high school teach­ers. What he can of­fer un­der­served stu­dents goes bey­ond be­ing a role mod­el, he says. He provides liv­ing proof that ex­cel­ling at math isn’t pre­de­ter­mined by what you look like or where you come from. At Geor­gia State, Ntore is already set­ting an ex­ample.  

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story stated that Geor­gia State Uni­versity’s gradu­ation rate was 51 per­cent. The rate ac­tu­ally climbed to 53 per­cent for the 2012-13 aca­dem­ic year.

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