Leveraging Technology to Scale Change

By Timothy Renick, Ph.D., VP for Enrollment Management and Student Success, Georgia State University

Timothy Renick, Ph.D., VP for Enrollment Management and Student Success, Georgia State University

I was recently speaking to a large group of college administrators. After outlining some of steps we have taken at Georgia State University to almost double our graduation rates, I received a challenge. 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 as head of student success at Georgia State nine 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.

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, 65 percent are non-white, 59 percent are low income. 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 make sure that students were staying on track and be able deliver personalized and timely interventions when they went off course.

We knew what we needed to do. We just didn’t know how to do it.

“Every day the system searches all of our student-information systems for evidence of any of these 800 things”

Quite simply, the problem was one of scale. We looked around us at colleges and universities that provided the kind of personalized attention that our students needed. Nine years ago, there seemed to be only one answer: staff up. This solution worked for well-resourced institutions and for those that enrolled a couple of thousand students or less. But what were modest-resourced institutions that enroll tens of thousands of students to do? What of places like Georgia State?

In recent years, Georgia State University—along with a handful of other large, non-traditional, public universities such as Arizona State and Central Florida—have had to invent one. We have worked to develop a model of post-secondary education that is both highly personalized and offered at scale for reasonable costs. What are some of the features of this new approach?

Predictive Analytics. Six years ago, we reviewed the effectiveness of academic advising on our campus. The results were sobering. Thousands of students were registering for the wrong classes, failing courses, losing scholarships, and dropping out before any advisor reached out to them to help.  

With no solution for the problem out there, we collaborated with the Education Advisory Board (EAB) to invent one. Using ten years of Georgia State data—over two million grades—we identified past, recurring academic behaviors that correlated to students struggling. 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?

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? 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 52,000 one-on-one meetings with students that were initiated by advisors based on personalized alerts emerging from this advising platform. Thousands of additional students are graduating, and they have taken less time to do so; because students are making fewer mistakes, they are graduating, on average, half a semester faster than they were before we launched the platform.

Chat Bots. This past summer, we became one of the first universities in the country to deploy chat bots in support of student success. We were facing challenges of “summer melt”— freshmen who had confirmed their intent to enroll at Georgia State but who never showed up for fall classes. In 2015, we had hundreds of students who fit in this category—fully admitted, registered for courses, but simply missing. With the help of Admit Hub, we launched a texting system that allows students to ask any question and to tap into our knowledge base of more than 2,000 prepared answers to commonly asked questions. We populated the knowledge base with answer to questions that often trip up new students in the summer between graduating high school and starting college—a time when they have no counselor to help them. How do I complete the FAFSA? What do I do if I get a verification request? What do I do if I can’t find my immunization records? In the three months leading up to the start the fall 2016 semester, incoming freshmen had more than 200,000 questions answered via the new platform, with an average response time of seven seconds. In the process, we reduced no-shows for term by 22 percent when compared to just one year earlier. We are bringing similar technologies to deliver personalized and timely attention to students in the areas of financial aid, course registration and career services.

Adaptive Learning. These new technologies are also changing the nature of the classroom. Six years ago—under a traditional lecture-class format—43 percent of the students taking introductory math courses at Georgia State were getting non-passing grades. Now, students meet in groups with their instructors in a math lab, with each student working at their own computer terminal on problems and receiving immediate, personalized feedback in response to their answers via adaptive learning technologies. Struggling students automatically get additional exercises on a point so they can build up competency before moving on. More advanced students get more challenging exercises so they do not get bored and tune out. Without lowering academic rigor or expectations, we have increased the pass rate in introductory math courses by 35 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 to the nation Georgia State is graduating 1,700 more students annually than we did five years ago. This past 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 achievement gaps.

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