This public US university has seen grades soar despite Covid. What’s it doing right?

If anywhere was going to take a pummeling from the coronavirus, you’d think it would

If anywhere was going to take a pummeling from the coronavirus, you’d think it would be a place like Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta.

Georgia State is not a glamorous flagship university – that would be the University of Georgia in Athens, the spiritual home of the Bulldogs, REM and the B-52s. It’s more of a workhorse public institution, with a large population of students who come from low-income households and have to work at least one paying job outside their studies to make ends meet.

Those jobs – in restaurants, in retail, in bars – largely evaporated in the spring, and most have not returned. The crisis has hit particularly hard at the lower end of the income scale – and close to 60% of Georgia State’s students are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. It has also hit African Americans and other ethnic minorities particularly hard – and 70% of Georgia State’s students are people of color.

Yet Georgia State has not been pummeled. In fact, its graduation rate this spring hit a record high. So did the grade-point average of its graduating class. Not only did attendance not drop in the hurried shift to remote learning; it went up – to a dizzying 98.5% by the final week of the spring semester.

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How? The answer is that Georgia State is a special sort of university, one that, for the past decade, has overturned received wisdom about the viability of lower-income, minority, and first-generation students. It has proven that such students do not fail because they are not capable; they fail because, at most universities, the bureaucracy throws obstacles in their way instead of helping them fulfill their potential.

Georgia State is committed to helping them. Relying in part on big data, the university has learned to pinpoint problems and intervene early to redirect students heading down the wrong path. Sometimes that intervention involves rewriting schedules so students can take core requirements when they need them; sometimes it means redesigning an intro course so students can learn at their own pace in front of a computer instead of getting lost in a large lecture hall.

The university’s academic advisers don’t just sit back and wait for students to come in; they are there from day one to guide each of them and respond any time the university’s computer system registers an alert – because of a bad grade in an important class, say, or an unexplained absence, or a delay in registering for the next semester.

The upshot of these and many other innovations is that Georgia State has become both singularly successful – it has erased all achievement gaps based on race or class – and also singularly resilient. When the Covid-19 crisis erupted, Georgia State was able to rely on many of the systems it had set up over the past decade to steer its undergraduates away from disaster. Drop-out and failure rates this spring were down from the previous year. And while there wasn’t an actual graduation stage to cross, the number of students receiving a diploma was higher than ever.

A moment of truth for Georgia State

Nothing about closing campus and moving classes online was easy – Tim Renick, Georgia State’s student success guru, describes his job these days as looking for “hidden positives amidst all the really dark clouds” – but the university knew how to anticipate who was in trouble and how best to help them, because this was what it was doing already.

When the federal government gave Georgia State $26 million in emergency financial aid under the Cares Act, the university knew how to distribute it, because some years earlier it had established a system of micro-grants for deserving students who found themselves a few hundred dollars short of their tuition bills.

The way the grants work, students do not have to apply for anything; Georgia State monitors their university accounts, uses data to assess their need and their academic performance, and then clears their debt. Using the same system, Georgia State was able to disburse 22,000 Cares Act grants in amounts ranging from $200 to $2,000 within 24 hours of receiving the money from Washington.

Other universities initiated cumbersome application procedures or – worse – gave the same amount to every student. Georgia State, by contrast, was confident the money was going where it was most needed and knew, too, how much to hold back so students who landed in unexpected trouble over the following days and weeks could submit electronic receipts – for a car repair, or a hospital visit, or a rent payment that couldn’t wait – and get reimbursed.

The university’s proactive academic advising system has proven similarly useful. In the first two weeks of remote learning, advisors were able to identify more than 8,000 students who either were not logging on or weren’t performing as expected. Some needed laptops or iPads, which the university was able to provide. Others were overwhelmed and needed financial or psychological guidance.

At a university where close to 60% of the students are classified as low-income, housing has proven by far the most pressing concern. “What are you going to do with my stuff?” one panicked student asked after the university announced that its residence halls were closing in March. “Are you going to burn it?”

Samantha Lapier, an academic adviser, said that throughout the spring and summer she heard at least twice a day from students who had depended on cheap university housing and subsidized food and were now sleeping on friends’ couches or in homeless shelters and going to bed hungry. “It’s the hardest thing to hear,” Lapier said.

The university can’t resolve every problem, but it can prioritize. A few years ago, Georgia State introduced an artificial intelligence chatbot to answer incoming students’ questions about their financial aid paperwork, and now it is using the same technology to address the housing problem. When housing staff first asked who needed help with shelter, they received 2,000 replies within eight minutes and were able to improvise solutions for at least some of the neediest students.

In this and other ways, the pandemic has proven to be less of an existential crisis for Georgia State than a moment of truth – the ultimate stress test of the interventionist model it has established. If the university passes the test, then the model will become compelling, if not irresistible, to other public colleges with large low-income populations which, up to now, have been reluctant to take the same bold steps.

Most academic institutions are cautious by nature, but the pandemic – and the financial crunch that has only just begun – is making the status quo increasingly untenable.

While many American universities struggle with high drop-out rates and gaping achievement gaps, Georgia State has shown how to eliminate both, while at the same time greatly increasing the number of lower-income students it admits and boosting its overall graduation rate.

A minority student from a mediocre high school and a poor family is now just as likely to cross the Georgia State graduation stage as a child of wealth and white privilege – a singular achievement. In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis and the widespread calls for a national reckoning on race, it is also striking that Georgia State, once a segregated whites-only commuter school, boasts one of the country’s most diverse residential campuses and graduates more African Americans each year than any other university.

Most of those universities, shockingly, are not designed to serve the needs of their undergraduate students. But the pandemic and the ensuing challenges might just shake them into realizing that they have to. College presidents, deans, and faculty chairs now understand that if they keep going down the same path, they risk seeing their undergraduate numbers melt away altogether, because students are already leery of paying top dollar for a remote education and they aren’t going to tolerate one that also dooms close to half of them to failure.

Lessons from the 2008 economic crisis

Georgia State’s last big moment of truth came in the wake of the last economic crisis, in 2008, when state funding was being slashed and the university understood it had to cling to as much revenue as possible from tuition fees and student grants.

Every public university in the country was facing a similar dilemma, and most of them chose to do what universities have most often done: they took advantage of the fact that people who can’t find a job tend to apply to college in larger numbers and raised their admissions criteria in the hope that a better-quality crop of students would last longer and graduate at a higher rate.

Georgia State, by contrast, concluded that there was nothing wrong with its students – they were dropping out largely for financial, not academic, reasons – and there was little mileage in seeking to become more exclusive because it could never compete with either the University of Georgia or with Georgia Tech, whose campus sits 15 blocks away.

At the time, the decision to take on more low-income and minority students was considered a bold, even a foolhardy choice, and Tim Renick, Georgia State’s head of student success, had to argue his case in the face of vigorous internal opposition.

Things look rather different now. First, the Georgia State model offers proof of concept, with reams of data to back up the effectiveness of its programs. Second, over the past decade, student success has gone from “something nobody talked about, to something everybody talked about”, in the words of Hilary Pennington of the Ford Foundation.

Third, the pandemic is dramatically altering the landscape of higher education to the detriment of boutique private colleges and in favor of large public urban institutions. The appeal of Georgia State is no longer just to lower-income students looking for a toehold and a pathway to the middle class, although that remains crucial. Students of all kinds are now questioning the value of going to a $70,000-a-year college out of state, with or without financial aid, when institutions like Georgia State provide excellent undergraduate teaching at a fraction of the cost. Enrollment in downtown Atlanta has hit a record high of 54,000 students as a consequence.

“Of the realities available, Georgia State’s is a pretty good one,” said Allison Calhoun-Brown, Georgia State’s vice-president for student engagement. “Sixty-five percent of our students live within an hour of us, and now they don’t have to deal with the Atlanta traffic to come to class. We’ve already seen anecdotal evidence that kids who were going out of state this fall are opting for schools that are closer. We are going to be cost-effective for many families.”

Can the university’s success continue online?

If Keenan Robinson had been one year further along in his studies when the pandemic hit, he would have been on the verge of graduating by now and all but assured of a job. Robinson is majoring in respiratory therapy – a highly marketable skill in the age of Covid. As it is, his life and routine, like everyone else’s, fell apart in a big hurry.

Robinson had been going to class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and doing clinical work at an Atlanta children’s hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then everything was canceled, and he was given just a couple of days to clear out of university housing and move back home with his parents. “I went from doing a lot to doing not that much,” he said.

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The turnaround, though, came soon enough. He had an administrative job in the university advisement office, which he was able to keep because the advisers shifted their sessions online without missing a beat. His professors, meanwhile, went a step further. They recorded lectures and seminars that Keenan and his fellow students could watch at any time, and sent additional videos and reading material to make up for the fact that they were no longer meeting in person. “We ended up with more material than previous classes have had,” he said. “The professors said: do not stress yourself out. We’ll give you what you need.”

This fall, Keenan will have to learn how to operate a mechanical ventilator, and the expectation is that he and his fellow students will meet in a large lecture hall with masks, if not also protective clothing from head to foot, in groups of no more than 10.

It will be much the same story across campus. Georgia State is holding most classes remotely, making exceptions only for lab classes that cannot be taught offsite. While that will ensure the university does not suffer a debacle like the beginning of term at the University of North Carolina, it also raises an important question. How will the incoming freshman class adapt to the Georgia State model if they never leave their homes?

Usually, those freshmen are grouped in “learning communities” of twenty-five students studying similar things. Usually, they meet their advisers in person, are introduced to students just a little older than themselves, and have an opportunity to join student groups.

All these things can be replicated online, but it won’t be the same – and nobody is pretending it will be. “We’re trying to give students some sense of community, and of the resources available to them,” Renick said. “But we’re also running a university offsite that looks nothing like the one we’ve run for the past 20 years.”

The outcome of this latest, unwanted experiment will be crucial. If Georgia State can hold steady and continue to lift students under extraordinary pressure – and, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, continue to deliver racial equity – it could point the way for much of the higher education world.

“The circumstances are horrid, they’re not good at all,” Renick added, “but … all these systems we had in place are the exact systems that were needed.”

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