Minority graduate numbers rise from efforts to make every student's progress matter
Story by Michelle Hiskey | Photography by Meg Buscema
At the end of her freshman year, Melissa Bradford found herself on the wrong side of the HOPE scholarship's razor edge. Despite family issues and first-year adjustments, she had felt confident about surviving the 3.0 grade point average cutoff. But when she received a 2.96, it meant Bradford would have to find another source for tuition - but how?
Too often, colleges lose students at such moments of crisis. A financial aid problem or a tough class, cultural barriers to seeking help, and feelings of isolation are some of the reasons students fail to progress or choose to leave. At Georgia State, solving those issues has brought about a multi-pronged approach helped by - and mirroring - its diverse student body.
Freshmen Learning Communities (FLCs), Supplemental Instruction, Keep HOPE Alive grants and other initiatives have knit a strong safety net for students across the edges of income, ethnicity, age, gender and family educational history - just one more way GSU has bucked tradition. "Colleges used to tell students, ‘Look to your left and right. In four years, one of you won't be here,'" says GSU President Mark P. Becker. "The attitude now is to identify those at risk for not staying here and get them into programs that work."
"We're not about sifting students," agrees Risa Palm, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "We want those with the ability to make it through." Her department's innovative programs for retention, progression and graduation aim to ensure all students - students such as Bradford - feel they count. The more they do, as counted by recent statistics, the more national attention is drawn to Georgia State.
Proof in the numbers
A 2010 brief by the Education Trust, a privately funded nonprofit that supports high achievement for all students at all levels, noted that from 2002 to 2007 Georgia State's minority graduation rate rose by a nation-leading 18.4 percentage points. "This improvement has not come at the expense of other students," the brief's authors wrote. "Georgia State's example demonstrates that public institutions can foster access and strive for excellence simultaneously. They do not face an either-or choice."
In a Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine article earlier this year that listed the colleges conferring the most degrees to minorities, Georgia State was ranked 28th nationally - and first among all colleges and universities within the state.
For Bradford, who is African-American, sticking with her studies continued with a $500 Keep HOPE Alive grant from GSU. Between that and her mother's loan for one semester's tuition, Bradford bought time to earn the HOPE back.
GSU's SIX YEAR GRADUATION RATE has jumped from 28.7% in 2000 to 48.1% in 2010
"I knew in my first semester how much pressure it was to keep the HOPE to afford school," says Bradford, now 21. "When the second semester got rocky and I lost the HOPE, I had to learn that I could push myself more than I was. Keep HOPE Alive cushioned me at a key time, to help me be proud of myself for progressing forward."
The fulcrum of these programs can be found on the 11th floor of the Citizen's Trust building, a laboratory of sorts for Timothy Renick, associate provost and academic tinkerer. He's primed a PowerPoint with bar graphs and pie charts showing how and why several key academic records were set in 2010-2011.
In that period, GSU set school records for its highest HOPE retention rate (64 percent) and general retention rate (84.2 percent). In the spring semester of 2011, the greatest numbers of degrees were conferred to date (3,044).
Scratch a bit deeper and other numbers diagram the engine of success. The progression rate - the measure of how well students are advancing to graduation - more than tripled, from 21.6 percent to 69.7 percent.
While his slides exist on a screen, their context exists out Renick's windowed office, beyond Piedmont Avenue into individual lives of students. They are succeeding at GSU because GSU sifted for programs until they found ones that worked.
A decade ago, GSU decided its graduation rate (then just shy of 30 percent) was not good enough, Renick says. Historically, the university knew, with its patchwork population, one size academic support would not fit all.
These days, GSU's polyglot campus of 31,000 students is roughly 40 percent white, a third African-American, 10 to 15 percent Asian and 8 percent Hispanic.
"We are America's future demo-graphic," President Becker says. "Students here do and should succeed at similar rates, and that is not what you see across the state or country."
Freshmen Learning Communities (FLCs) help students stay and graduate - if they take part. Grade point averages: 2.96 in FLC, 2.73 not in FLC
While other universities target demographic groups that historically underperform, GSU's wide variety of students makes such profiling practically pointless. "Georgia Tech offers a small early intervention program for students who are largely low income and minority," Renick points out. "We considered such a program, but almost all of our students would have qualified. Many of the racial and ethnic issues that play themselves out in predictable fashion across the nation don't play out in the same way at Georgia State."
Instead, GSU mined other data to identify hurdles that separate the achievers from those who fall behind or drop out.
"There is no majority population at Georgia State," Renick says. "So we developed the programs based not on race but on an understanding of what tripped up our students, and made the programs open to anyone who wanted to take part."
One of the first initiatives was Freshmen Learning Communities (FLCs), geared to help new students plug into a supportive environment based on their major or interest. These groups of 25 students move through class sections together, forming a pool of peer support and collaboration for their first semester. Every FLC takes part in a service-learning project as well. More recently, GSU integrated academic advisers into the FLCs, which doubled student-initiated visits to the advisement center. The FLC payoff: a .25 improvement in GPA over non-FLC students.
The FLCs took root in synergy with the expansion of the campus footprint, creating a greater feeling of both access and belonging.
"From our past as a large, impersonal commuter school, there have been a series of growing pains to try to meld together what is rightfully considered a community," Renick says. "It's a slow, segmented process to find what reaches and speaks to students. There's a lot that we can design, but if students don't make use of the programs and feel comfortable, they won't do any good."
To further strengthen the safety net for new students, every professor who teaches a freshman must report that student's progress, to flag and shore up strugglers. "Especially with the HOPE, if you have one bad semester, you can lose your scholarship and greatly raise the risk of dropping out," Renick says.
Next, attention turned to specific classes that tended to weed out freshmen. The provost's office traced the "DFW" triad - the 20 freshman classes with the most D's, F's or withdrawals - and students who had earned high grades in those classes were recruited to return, for pay, as peer tutors. Georgia State now offers one of the most extensive programs of Supplemental Instruction in the country.
GSU ranked 5th in the nation for AFRICAN-AMERICAN BACHELOR'S DEGREES
(All disciplines combined)
Source – Diverse: Issues in Higher Education
For Sandra Fraro of Loganville, the presence of a peer tutor helped ease the anxiety of Biology 1103, one of the first courses she took when she returned to campus after a hiatus of more than two decades. The class was required for her second degree, in nursing. "It was a huge benefit to help understand some of the more difficult concepts," she said. "I know that my success at GSU was set from that day on. … When the SI leader tells you that SI students get at least half a letter grade higher than those not attending SI, you can bank on that. They teach you how to learn, not just what to learn."
In the introductory political science course, for instance, the average grade for a student participating in SI was 3.24; that of a non-participant was 2.60. Fraro later became an SI peer leader, which helped further improve her grades.
"There's a connection when the students engage the educational process together," says Allison Calhoun-Brown, assistant vice president for student retention.
Another program that offers students an income and better grades is the University Assistantship program, which matches undergraduates (including freshmen) with professors who need research help. "They can get connected from the very beginning with a faculty mentor in an area of interest," Renick says. "Some work with them for four years and get paid for those hours, like graduate assistants do." The UA program's biggest supporter, President Becker, has helped boost funding to $500,000.
One of GSU's most significant offerings is the one that helped keep Bradford on campus - Keep HOPE Alive. "The greatest single stumbling block to graduation is losing HOPE," Renick says. Of those who do, only 20 percent graduate.
GSU couldn't fill the entire gap caused by the loss of HOPE, but it could offer a seed grant of $500 per semester to some students. A catch was that the student had to agree to a set of conditions such as meeting with an academic mentor and attending workshops.
"They can feel isolated, that they are the only person who ever experienced this," Calhoun-Brown says. "This support helps them make adjustments, so the bottom doesn't fall out and they think they can't be a good student again." While only 8 percent of GSU students overall ever gain HOPE back after losing it, more than half of the students in GSU's Keep HOPE Alive program have regained their scholarship.
For accountability and data collection purposes, Bradford and other Keep HOPE Alive grantees are required to swipe their Panther Card to mark their attendance. This thin, small tool found in every student's wallet has been critical in measuring results in this and other programs, Renick says.
Over time, GSU's smorgasbord approach reached more of those hungry for academic help - even those who don't admit to it or feel they can't ask for it.
"We've had a lot of failures. Every-one in the trenches has been frustrated at times, and there are a lot of sad stories," Renick candidly admits. No program will help students who "shrug their shoulders and ignore what we're offering. But for those who participate, these are incremental programs that have a big collective impact."
"The message is, ‘You're not alone,'" Renick adds. "Students who feel engaged are more likely to persist."
For Bradford, the Keep HOPE Alive grant pointed her to other resources, such as counseling to reduce stress. Out of class, she leaned on her brother Corey Rumley, who persisted through obstacles to graduate from GSU in 2007.
"You'll get it back," he said of the HOPE, echoing the message of GSU's grant. The support has kept Bradley on track for a career as a clinical psychologist, with a projected graduation in 2013.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer based in Decatur.