The Scale of Change in Higher Education: Using Technology and Impacting Student Success
In December, I spoke at a statewide meeting of more than a hundred university and college leaders in New Mexico. After outlining some of the initiatives that we have implemented at Georgia State University to raise our graduation rates by 22 percentage points, I received an interesting comment.
The president of a small college with enrollments under 2,000 lamented, “Sure, you can implement these programs at a big university like Georgia State, but how can small colleges do the same?”
How times have changed. When I assumed the position of head of student success programs at Georgia State eight years ago, the conversation was very different. Georgia State’s graduation rates were far too low, and there were significant achievement gaps between students based on race, ethnicity and income level. In short, we were a typical, large public university.
It’s not that we didn’t know what would help us to improve. Georgia State enrolls large numbers of students who come from populations that typically struggle in college. Among our 51,000 students, 63 percent are non-white and 60 percent are Pell eligible. Our student body is among the most diverse in the nation—and one of the most economically challenged. Thousands of our students are the first in their families to attend college. In order to increase graduation rates, we knew that we needed to provide students with far more personalized assistance. We needed to be able to give them individualized academic advice in a timely fashion, to determine whether they had registered for classes and majors that were appropriate to their abilities, to identify when they were struggling in their classes before their grades faltered, to help them complete the stack of paperwork needed to qualify for financial aid and scholarships, and to provide them with financial counseling about how to spend the money wisely once they had it.
We knew what we needed to do. We just didn’t know how to do it.
Quite simply, the problem was one of scale. Eight years ago, we looked around us at colleges and universities that were able to provide the kind of personalized attention that our students needed. For the most part, they fell into two categories. They were either elite, well-resourced universities with large endowments and low student to faculty/staff ratios—Harvard, Virginia, UC Berkeley—or they were small colleges with modest enrollments. Georgia State was neither. When it came to personalized attention, there seemed to be only one solution: staff up. This model was achievable for well-resourced institutions and for those that enrolled a couple of thousand students or less. But what do institutions do that enroll tens of thousands of students? What is the path forward for places like Georgia State?
In recent years, Georgia State University—along with a handful of other large, non-elite, public universities such as Arizona State and Central Florida—has had to invent one. We have worked to develop a model of postsecondary education that is highly personalized and offered at scale. And we have worked to spread the new models developed through collaborations like the University Innovation Alliance. What is emerging is exciting—not merely for our own campuses but for the nation.
At Georgia State, for instance, we conducted an assessment of the state of academic advising on our campus six years ago. The results were sobering. With tens of thousands of at-risk students, advisors were overwhelmed. Too many students were struggling—dropping and failing courses, pursuing the wrong majors relative to their background and ability, or simply registering for courses that did not apply to their degree programs. Even worse, because our advisors were overwhelmed, their workdays were filled just by meeting with students who came to them. This does not sound like a bad thing: help the students who have the initiative to seek help. But low-income, first-generation students often lack the context to self-diagnose when they are struggling. Since no one at the university was watching, thousands were failing courses, losing scholarships and dropping out before an advisor could even reach out to help. We not only knew that we had to do better, but that we had to do something very different.
With no solution for the problem at hand, we collaborated with the Education Advisory Board (EAB) to invent one. Using ten years of Georgia State data—over two million grades—we identified academic behaviors that correlated to students struggling in the past. For instance, we found that Political Science majors who earn an A or B in their first Political Science course at Georgia State go on to graduate on time at a 75 percent rate. Political Science majors who get a C in their first course graduate at only a 25-percent rate. Yet for years, we had been doing nothing with the C student but passing him or her on to upper-level work in the field, where whatever weakness resulted in that first C grade would become exacerbated, and the C grade would become Ds and Fs. We asked a simple question: What would happen if we intervened when the problem first surfaced rather than after it had spread? How many more students could we help to graduate?
The result was a new type of data-based advising platform that identifies more than 800 problems like the one outlined above. Now, every day the system searches all of our student-information systems for evidence of any of these 800 things. Did a student register for the wrong course? Did they do poorly in a prerequisite course? Are they in a major that does not fit their ability? When an alert goes off, an advisor proactively reaches out to the student, typically within 48 hours. Over the past twelve months at Georgia State, we have had more than 43,000 one-on-one meetings with students that were initiated by advisors based on personalized alerts emerging from this new advising platform. Offered as the Student Success Collaborative by EAB, there are now more than 150 universities nationally using the same advising platform customized to their own campus data, and literally hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S.—most at large public universities—are now getting timely, personalized attention at scale.
Georgia State has used this same pairing of technology/data and human interaction in half a dozen other new student-success initiatives. We use big data to help us target micro-grants to maximize the impact of need-based aid. Our Panther Retention Grant program, which has been recognized by President Obama, has helped prevent more than 7,000 Georgia State students from dropping out for financial reasons over the past four years—with an average grant of only $900 each. We have used flipped classrooms with adaptive learning to transform outcomes in all of our introductory math courses. Six years ago—under a non-personalized, lecture-class format—43 percent of the students taking college math were getting non-passing grades. Now, students meet in groups with their instructors in a math lab, with each student at their own computer terminal working on math problems and receiving immediate, personalized feedback in response to their answers. Slower students automatically get additional exercises on a point so they can build up competency before moving on. More advanced students get more challenging questions so they do not get bored and tune out. Without lowering academic rigor or expectations, we have lowered the non-pass rate in these math courses from 43 percent to 19 percent—and we have scaled the program to cover all 7,500 students who take these courses annually.
Why are these innovations so important, not just to Georgia State but also to the nation? They are transformative. Georgia State has increased its graduation rates by 22 percent at the same time that we have doubled the number of low-income, first-generation students that we enroll. Even more encouragingly, we have evened the playing field between different student populations. This year at Georgia State, our first-generation, Pell-eligible, black, and Latino students all graduated at rates at or above the rates for the student body overall—making Georgia State the only public university of its size nationally that has eliminated the achievement gap. All told, we are graduating 1,800 more students than were just five years ago—with the biggest gains being made by our most at-risk student populations. Plus, our revenues have reached new heights as a result of the tuition dollars that we have gained from holding on to students who in the past would have dropped out.
The question used to be: “How can large, public universities afford to offer personalized attention to students at scale?” The question today is: “How can they afford not to do so?”
Author Perspective: Administrator