No Magic Bullets

November 2013

We live in a day and time in which there is the tendency for people, be it an individual, an organization, or society as a whole, to look for quick fixes to challenges or problems. Perhaps we have become too accustomed to developments from technology simplifying our lives. The Internet is ubiquitous, information and digital content are at our fingertips, shipping is overnight and our devices for accessing that world keep getting smaller and more powerful. So much of what was once time consuming, difficult or even impossible, has become so easy to do that we tend to forget that there are challenges that defy quick answers.

Who graduates from college in America, and at what rate, is an example of a problem that is both complex and seemingly intractable. For decades, whether or not one holds a college degree has largely been a product of one’s economic status. In 2009 more than 80 percent of Americans in the top quarter of the population by family income attained at least a bachelor’s degree (New York Times, “The Reproduction of Privilege” March 12, 2012). That figure dropped to around 36 percent for the next quarter of the population, to a little less than 17 percent for the next quarter, and to a shockingly low 8 percent for the lowest quartile. These figures reflect a widening disparity in educational attainment by economic strata. For example, in 1970 the figures for the same four strata stood at 40 percent, 15 percent, 11 percent and 6 percent, respectively. It is clear from these figures that the top-half of the population (by economic status) has seen the greatest rises in educational attainment, and that the increases for the bottom half pale in comparison.

We see the same story play out across our nation in the graduation rates for individual universities and colleges. Those institutions that enroll students from mostly affluent families tend to have extremely high graduation rates (for example, higher than 80 percent and often on the order of 90 percent), and those that enroll students from across a much broader range of the economic spectrum have rates at or even sharply below the national average of roughly 50 percent. It is not uncommon to see universities where large percentages of students are Pell eligible (the Pell program is a federal program that provides need-based grants to low-income students) have graduation rates ranging from 25 percent to 35 percent.

Georgia State University used to be in this last group. A decade ago, our graduation rate was about 32 percent. Recognizing the need for transformative improvement, the university made a commitment to student success and, in 2008, it established an office focused on student retention and graduation–the first of its kind in the University System of Georgia. Those efforts were bolstered in 2011 when the university’s strategic plan was ratified with goal number one being for Georgia State to “become a national model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.” Today, despite Georgia State having among the highest percentage of Pell students in the country, the six-year graduation rate stands at 53 percent, up 21 points, and is on a steadily upward trajectory. More than 75 percent of the students who enrolled at Georgia State six years ago have graduated from either Georgia State, another institution, or are still enrolled in a college or university. Significantly, our Pell students now graduate at rates equal to those of all other economic groups enrolled at the university. Georgia State’s numbers outpace the national average, and far outpace other institutions whose student populations mirror Georgia State’s economically.

Chart showing Georgia State's dramatic increase in graduation rates since 2003

Georgia State has attracted significant national attention and recognition for the impressive progress made in student success over the past decade. Most recently, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, a group of 219 of the largest and most prestigious public universities in the nation, awarded Georgia State its inaugural Most Visible Progress (MVP) Trailblazer award for “exceptional progress with increasing retention toward or completion of a bachelor’s degree during the last three years.” Equally impressive is that universities from across the nation are requesting to send teams to Georgia State to learn from our experience and expertise.

Vice Provost Timothy Renick and Professor Allison Calhoun-Brown have been leaders in formulating and implementing programs that have led to the remarkable results for which we are now being recognized. They and I are frequently asked, “how do you do it” or “what is the program that moves the needle?”

There are cynics who believe our increased graduation rates have resulted from lowering academic standards, for example, making it easier to pass courses and graduate. Nothing could be further from the truth. With new programs such as Critical Thinking Through Writing our requirements to graduate are more rigorous than ever.

Another common misconception is that we have discovered a magic bullet to increasing student success. The reality is that Drs. Renick and Calhoun-Brown and the entire Georgia State team have taken a focused, disciplined and multi-faceted approach to student success. Three key elements have been: (1) using data to identify the greatest impediments to student success, (2) piloting interventions designed to overcome those impediments and (3) scaling university-wide those interventions that have been found to be efficacious. Furthermore, we have mined mountains of historical data and applied modern analytics to develop interventions that attack academic and economic challenges faced by students. Examples include an overhaul of student advising, and programs to help students hang on to the Hope scholarship.

It is worth noting that Georgia State eliminated disparities in graduation rates by race and ethnicity by focusing on the overall student population, not by focusing on programs for specific racial or ethnic groups. All too often universities develop boutique programs focusing on a specific subset of the student population rather than on a comprehensive approach. While those boutique programs may be well intentioned, they tend not to produce the kinds of results attained by the more comprehensive approaches adopted by Georgia State.

There is no magic bullet to solving the complex and challenging problem of driving graduation rates significantly higher. Baby Boomers remember all too well the mantra of “look to your left, look to your right, in four years one of you will not be here” (to graduate). The sink or swim mentality of the past is no longer acceptable. I believe every student admitted to Georgia State should graduate. The trick is to have programs in place to steer students in the right direction when they first start to deviate off course rather than when they are in deep trouble.

The transition from high school to university is a big and, for many, difficult step. We expect students to work harder and smarter once they enroll at Georgia State. Some make that transition seamlessly, while others struggle. The university’s responsibility is to identify where students are struggling, and to provide a hand to help pull them up. Whether that is through our Summer Success Academy, peer-tutoring programs, Keep Hope Alive program, Panther Retention Grants, redesigned courses, or proactive advising, we can and are doing a better job of personalizing our large, complex university. It is likewise the responsibility of the student to grasp the hand offered, and to then lift him or herself up through improved planning, and working skills and habits.

Together, we are creating a model where student success is the expected outcome, not a game of chance–and no longer a product of economic status.

Students celebrate at the close of a Georgia State University graduation ceremony