Georgia State University (GSU) is taking a leading role in response to dramatic demographic shifts in the Southeast United States. Located in downtown Atlanta, the university enrolls more African American, Latino, Asian American, first-generation and Pell Grant students than any other institution in the state of Georgia, says Timothy Renick, Vice Provost and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success. Driven by a commitment to the success of its students in life, school, and career, the university has seen its graduation rate increase by 22 percentage points over the past decade.
Georgia State University’s progress has come from an innovative approach that leverages data as part of a process of continuous institutional self-reflection. The university’s success in eliminating barriers by clarifying degree pathways, developing a national model of intensive advising, and making extensive use of adaptive learning technology in gateway courses has set the stage for addressing two additional high impact areas in need of transformation: ineffective course delivery methods and unmet financial need among the student body.
Course scheduling and financial need are at the center of a project supported by the the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMFG). The challenges that these areas pose are common in higher education. Solutions are not.
Strategic Course Scheduling
As the university has developed its capacity to use predictive analytics to facilitate intensive advising practices, new light has been shed on problems with the way the university schedules its courses. Today, academic advisors are helping students map out their academic requirements from semester to semester and are monitoring registration to ensure that students are sticking to these plans. Last year, there were more than 43,000 one-on-one interventions by advisors at Georgia State University to keep students on path. But what happens when a student’s ability to follow advisor recommendations is limited by course availability? When course scheduling decisions are made solely based on faculty preference, students lose out. Their progress towards graduation is slowed, and the cost of their education grows.
Georgia State University is working to redefine its course-scheduling processes so that students are assured of having the courses they need, when they need them. By leveraging in-house analytical capabilities, and partnering with a third-party consulting firm, Georgia State University is developing predictive models to anticipate student demand for specific courses.
Increased efficiency in the area of course scheduling means big savings to students. American college students spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on unnecessary credits that delay their progress to degree. At times, unnecessary credits are a result a failure on the part of colleges and universities to understand and meet course demand. Until now, anticipating demand has involved little more than guesswork on the basis of anecdotal or historical information. Today, sophisticated modelling that leverages large quantities of student data is allowing Georgia State University to cut the time it takes students to graduate. In fact, over the last two years, the increased rate at which students have fulfilled their degree requirements has meant more than $15 million in total saving in tuition and fees to the students.
Financial challenges also serve to delay student progress. Not so long ago, Georgia State University would drop hundreds of students each term for an inability to cover tuition and fees. Now, with access to a decade of financial aid data and more than 140,000 student records, the university has enhanced its already robust predictive analytics platform to identify students with nonacademic financial need that puts them at risk of stopping college.
The Panther Retention Grant program has been shown to make a significant difference in helping students for whom a financial shortfall of as little as $300 might prevent enrollment. Financial issues at Georgia State University have been shown to be particularly problematic for seniors who find their aid lagging as they enter the home stretch. Micro grants have been proven very effective in helping students to cross the finish line, but this approach is a responsive measure rather than a proactive one.
What are the reasons that significant number of students find themselves running out of funding and dropping out of school? How can we anticipate financial risk and assist students early on so that they don’t run out of money in the first place? Building financial risk factors into its advising platform was an important first step for Georgia State University, but identifying and addressing the root cause of these issues requires something more.
Georgia State University has committed to establishing a Student Financial Management Center to assist at-risk students in mapping out a sound financial plan to fund their education. As Georgia State continues to develop its financial literacy support model, it will also invest in research to optimize and demonstrate its impact, with the goal of serving as a mentor to other schools interested in scaling its approach nationwide.
The problems facing students today are many and varied. Some problems, like financial literacy, are challenges that students bring with them. Others, like course scheduling, are problems that universities unknowingly create. “We face a moral choice here,” Renick says. Embracing student success as a moral duty to serve society by serving students, Georgia State University has made use of data to better understand its students while at the same time holding up a mirror and confronting areas in which its complexity as an organization has historically made it difficult for its diverse student population to succeed at high rates.