Data analytics, combined with an institutional embrace of self-reflection, has been a powerful tool for change, says Georgia State’s Timothy Renick.

Apr 29 2019
Data Analytics

Georgia State Tackles Racial Disparities with Data-Driven Academic Support

Troubled by uneven graduation rates, institutions use data to level the playing field.

What if a college could triple its graduation rate, shorten the time to graduation and boost enrollment, simply with smarter use of resources? Georgia State University has made it happen with an innovative, data-driven program, GPS Advising

The name, short for Graduation Progression Success, echoes the navigational tool on purpose, says Timothy Renick, senior vice president for Student Success. “As soon as a student makes a wrong turn, the system’s already recalibrating to get him or her back on the right path,” he says.

In 2008, when Renick moved into his current role, GSU’s annual dropout rate was approximately 5,600 students. Many never reached out for tutoring or support. In fact, most students, many from minority groups, enrolled for only one semester.

“We were not particularly strong in graduation rates, and we had significant achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity and income level,” says Renick. “We were graduating white students at rates higher than African American and Hispanic students.”

Renick and his team, unwilling to ignore these statistics, wanted to understand the reasons for the gap. While income and prior educational experiences played a part, he knew there was more to the story.

“We began to laser-focus on our own complicity in the lack of a high graduation rate,” Renick says.

Fast forward a few years, and GSU has demonstrated the power of data analytics, increasing its six-year graduation rate from 48 percent in 2008 to 55 percent in 2018. Improvements are across the board, Renick says, including among white students and those from middle to upper income families.

But the biggest increases have been for African American and Hispanic students and Pell Grant recipients. Sixteen years ago, GSU’s graduation rate for African American males was 18 percent. It’s now 55 percent.

“It’s literally tripled over a relatively short period of time,” Renick says.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how universities use data analytics to make student advisors more effective.

Hundreds of Data Points Help Advisers Customize Student Support

Programs like this are taking off across the country as institutions, eager to attract students, find that graduation rates are a solid selling point, says Ernest Ezeugo, policy director at the National Campus Leadership Council.

“As higher ed becomes increasingly competitive, you have colleges struggling to figure out how they can rise above the rest,” he says. “The use of data and analytics is becoming more popular and more prevalent.”

California State University, Long Beach also used data to elevate graduation rates. Leaders launched the Data Fellows program, which they describe as data-informed rather than data-driven, four years ago. Today, a 55-member team meets bimonthly to discuss metrics related to student success.

The team aims to foster a culture of ownership of data and solutions that drive change, says Dhushy Sathiana­than, vice provost for academic planning.

As soon as a student makes a wrong turn, the system’s already recalibrating to get him or her back on the right path.”

Timothy Renick Senior Vice President, Student Success

“It’s a great opportunity, not just focusing on four-year graduation, but looking at students who are graduating in four and a half years and those who are graduating in five, and seeing what it was that threw them off by one semester and what kind of barriers we can remove to change that,” he says. GSU takes a similarly broad view. 

Its staff analyzed 10 years of data, including 2.5 million grades and 140,000 student records, searching for data points and identifiable behaviors that correlated to dropout rates in a statistically significant way.

They expected to find a few dozen. Instead, they found 800. A direct correlation exists, for example, between dropout rates and midsemester course withdrawal. A student’s electronic footprint might indicate a problem: If he isn’t logging in to the Wi-Fi network, he probably isn’t attending classes. Today, those data points drive timely supports.

“If any of those 800 behaviors is identified, the adviser assigned to that student gets an alert, and they have 48 hours for an intervention,” Renick says. “They call the student in, sit down and meet face to face with the students to try to help with whatever they can.”

At Long Beach, the four-year graduation rate has jumped from 16 percent to 28 percent in the past two years, with a goal of 39 percent by 2025. Meanwhile, gaps in the graduation rate have dropped from 12 percent to 4 percent for minority versus nonminority students and to 7 percent for Pell recipients versus non-Pell recipients, respectively.

Universities Develop Data Platforms to Find Identify At-Risk Students

The technology behind GSU’s program is a platform from the EAB (formerly the Education Advisory Board) that taps into GSU’s student information systems for data on its 53,000-plus students. For example, the platform might alert an adviser that “Sue Jones just failed a math quiz” so he or she can recommend that Sue attend a free tutoring course.


GSU also developed an in-house system to track class attendance by monitoring logons to the Wi-Fi and learning management system. A data platform predicts demand for certain courses so the university can ensure enough seats are available, and a custom chatbot powered by artificial intelligence answers students’ questions about admissions, enrollment and other tasks.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how one university used data analytics to slash student failure rates.

Colleges’ Commitment to Graduation Attracts Parents’ Attention

GSU also boosted graduation rates by targeting students’ financial issues. Every semester, approximately 1,000 students dropped out — not because of grades, but because they couldn’t pay all of their tuition.

Today, GSU uses microgrants to keep these students enrolled, depositing small sums into the accounts of students nearing graduation. In the past seven years, GSU has distributed more than 13,000 Panther retention grants, and 87 percent of recipients have gone on to graduate.

“We are tracking the students ­carefully. We know just how much they owe,” Renick says. “But we also know which students have a high probability to graduate, and a senior who has almost gotten to the end has shown grit.”

Long Beach made a similar discovery, says Sathianathan. Once staff realized it was often money, not academics, that pushed students into an extra year of classes, they set out to change that.

An investment of $200,000 has increased the university’s four-year graduation rate by 4 percent, Sathianathan says.

At GSU, GPS Advising not only saves money, it also generates it, according to an analysis conducted by Boston Consulting Group. It found that the program has generated more revenues than it has cost by retaining students who otherwise might have left, Renick says.

The program’s success is also attracting new enrollments, he adds. “We’ve had parents who have told us that they are specifically enrolling their students at Georgia State because they’re investing a lot in the education and they want to make sure that the students have the maximum chance of sticking with it and graduating.”

Ben Rollins

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