Carl McCray (B.B.A. ’15) remembers the career-altering meeting with his adviser.

The youngest of 22 grandchildren, McCray was the first of them to get a college degree. At his high school in the tiny south Georgia town of Fitzgerald (pop. 9,032), “we got it drilled into our heads that the medical field was one of the best to go into because of the job security,” he says.

Without giving much thought to whether he was actually interested in a career in health care, McCray went to Georgia State to major in nursing. “I started taking the sciences, chemistry, biology, and they were killing me. I was going to tutoring sessions every day, staying up all night studying, just to scrape by,” he recalls. Then he began getting emails from his adviser. And when he was truly miserable, he broke down and finally paid her a visit.

“I told her I pretty much hated it,” he says. A heart-to-heart talk about McCray’s interests led his adviser to suggest he consider a transfer to the business school, where he ultimately declared a major in managerial sciences.

“My adviser had explained all the things I could do with that major, and it really stood out to me,” McCray says. McCray’s meeting with his adviser gave him a new lease on life.

“Sitting in chemistry every day,” he says, “I was on the brink of being done with school, and now I had a new burst of enthusiasm.”

Because his coursework at the Robinson College of Business came more naturally to him, McCray had time to take advantage of other opportunities, such as joining Delta Sigma Pi, a business fraternity, which he says opened many doors for him. He landed an internship at Koch Industries, and upon graduation last May he had competing offers from Koch and GEICO.

But McCray is focusing his attention on starting his own business with a fellow business school grad, and he’s considering coming back to Georgia State for his MBA.

Big Data

carl_brittany1Humans produce scads of data every day. Two-point-five exabytes — that’s a billion gigabytes — according to some estimates. That’s the equivalent of 150 million iPhones full of data every single day. You generate data every time you scan your shopper’s card at Kroger, track steps on your FitBit, and the list goes on. As data sets grow, so too do the possibilities for their use. Big data is where it’s at.

Since 2012, Georgia State has been using its own very big data set to identify students who need extra attention. About 60 percent of Georgia State’s students are nonwhite. About that same number come from low-income families. Some 40 percent are the first in their family to go to college. Hispanic and African-American students finish college at far lower rates than their white counterparts. Low-income and first-generation students also graduate at lower rates than their peers. When the demographics of a university are dominated by students with historically low graduation rates, “you’re not going to resolve that with a little program for a hundred students,” says Timothy Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success.

“You need programs that impact thousands, even tens of thousands, of students every semester,” Renick says.

“You have to change the nature of the institution at its core. You have to change the student experience in a fundamental way so it addresses the needs of the types of students we enroll.”

Big data has helped Georgia State do exactly that. Through Georgia State’s Student Success Initiative, data analytics software pings an adviser when students might be in danger of dropping out or failing out. Within 48 hours, the adviser reaches out for an in-person meeting. During the meeting, the adviser probes to find out what the student’s particular challenges are and helps connect him or her with the appropriate resource — tutoring, emergency financial aid or advice about other majors.

Student Success helped earn the university its No. 4 spot in U.S. News and World Report’s Most Innovative Schools. The initiative has made Georgia State a leader in graduating students from diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Renick wasn’t willing to accept that low-income, minority and first-generation students are simply less likely to graduate than their peers.

“As long as we assume that these students are destined to graduate at lower rates, we are just replicating a system that is based on inequality and injustice,” he says.

Renick wanted to pinpoint the exact moment in a college student’s education when things start to go south. The university could then target its interventions to get students back on track, maybe before the students even knew they’d fallen off.

It’s no service to students to intervene, for example, after they have failed the second consecutive class in their major during their fourth semester as a senior. At this point, they’ve put off graduation by at least a year and spent money on classes that must be retaken.

Starting in 2008, the Office of Institutional Research, led by then-director Charles Gilbreath, spearheaded a data project to begin to understand the impact of Georgia State’s support programs on the success rates of students.

“We had the ability to look at the data, see whether it showed us any trends, and after that, see whether a specific initiative, let’s say supplemental instruction, had made a change in the average grade point average,” Gilbreath says.

Then in 2012, Georgia State partnered with the Education Advisory Board in Washington, D.C. to conduct a massive statistical analysis of 140,000 Georgia State student records and 2.5 million grades from 10 years of university data. The analysis found 800 unique circumstances that increase the likelihood that a student will drop out or fail out. For example, political science majors who earn an A or a B in the first course in their major have a 75-percent chance of graduating on time. The chance of an on-time graduation plummets to just 25 percent for students who earn a C in that first major class. So a flag was created to alert the advisor of a political science major who gets a C in their first class. Other red flags the analysis uncovered included registering for the wrong class, withdrawing from a class, or achieving a low grade in prerequisite course.


“You have to change the nature of the institution at its core. You have to change the student experience in a fundamental way so it addresses the needs of the types of students we enroll.”


Specialized software, branded Graduation and Progression Success or GPS for short, mines each student’s records daily for any one of these 800 red flags. Each time a problem is identified, an academic adviser is notified who then reaches out to the student.

“In the past, we would let these issues go unattended,” Renick says. “Now we are tracking these things every day.”

The university-wide initiative almost eliminates the chance that an individual student in trouble could slip through the cracks.

Safety Net Funding

Data analytics helped connect Brittany Boulware (B.S. ’13) with the help she needed, too. The Macon native, a first-generation college student like McCray, had attended two other colleges before she enrolled at Georgia State. Her college years were plagued by problems at home: her parents’ contentious divorce, her mother’s illness, her father’s near-fatal injury. At one point, she took a year off to move back home and help her mother.

At another, she was forced to drop all her classes mid-semester and go home to her family. When she returned to school, she had to repeat — and repay for — the courses she had dropped.

Studies show that more than one leave-of-absence from college slashes the chances of finishing. The odds were stacked against Boulware. What’s more, she was putting herself through school, working multiple jobs some semesters to do so.

“My parents weren’t really able to support me the way I know they wish they could have,” she says.

In her second-to-last semester, borrowing the maximum in financial aid, Boulware came up $3,000 short of her tuition and fees. She followed up almost daily with Financial Aid to find out if she had any other options. Eventually, she was dropped from her classes for failure to pay. She made arrangements with each of her professors to allow her to remain in the class until she came up with the money. She obsessively checked her financial aid balance to see if anything had changed.

“I looked one day, and it said ‘Panther Retention Grant,’” she recalls. She had never heard of the grant, much less applied for it, yet there it was in her account in the exact amount she needed.

timrenick“I was so happy that I would be able to finish school, I cried.” she says. “It was a miracle.”

Another component of the university’s Student Success programs, Panther Retention Grants meet the remaining financial need of students who are on track academically but are at risk of dropping out because they’re short on funds. Students don’t apply for the grants. They somewhat magically receive them.

“We identify the students using analytics,” Renick says. “We award the grants proactively, in most cases right before we are required to drop students for non-payment.”

When Boulware called the Financial Aid office to ask where the mysterious cash infusion had come from, they told her she had received a grant and to go to her adviser to sign off on it. The next semester, her last, Boulware received another grant, again for the exact amount that she was short.

“I would have had to drop out, go work somewhere, try to save up $5,000 and come back in a year or two,” she says.

Instead, Boulware graduated with a degree in education and now teaches social studies to sixth graders at a public school in Peachtree Corners, Ga.

Silencing the Critics

Sometimes money or a change of major isn’t the solution. Student Success initiatives include Freshman Learning Communities to aid the transition into college, innovative math instruction for students who struggle with basic college math, resources for first-generation colleges students like McCray and Boulware, and peer tutoring, among other programs. The individual programs have been rolled out over the years, many before the use of data analytics.

Some university faculty have voiced concerns that Student Success will simply steer students en masse towards easier majors.

“But since we launched this predictive analytics system four years ago, we’ve had more than 200,000 interventions with students based upon it, and the two fastest growing majors at Georgia State are biology and computer science,” says Renick. Not easy majors.

Critics have also suggested that Student Success is nothing more than institutionalized coddling. The program, they say, prevents young adults from making their own mistakes. Students should be adults and make their own decisions, Renick says, but the university has a responsibility to provide them the information they need to do so.

“Asking first-generation and low-income students to come in and choose between 90 majors and 3,000 courses without providing them with guidance — that’s just not reasonable,” Renick says.

Advisers offer guidance in course selection and at other crucial points throughout students’ education. They have sophisticated means to see when things might be going awry. A student wouldn’t know that a C in his or her sophomore year can predict the odds of graduating two years later.

“In a sense, we as an institution had been misleading that student,” Renick says. “The institution is telling you you’re on track because you got a passing grade, and it meets the prerequisite for upper level coursework. But you’re not prepared for upper-level coursework if you only have a 25 percent chance of succeeding in the next class.”

Now the university tells students what their grades mean, which empowers them to decide how to proceed. Get tutoring? Change the course of study? Take the risk?

“We’re giving them information they never had before,” Renick says. “We’re not diminishing the responsibility of the students. If anything, we’re treating them as adults and providing them with the kind of information they need to be responsible agents for their own future.”

Paying it Forward

High Praise

In a December 2014 speech at the White House’s College Opportunity Day of Action, President Barack Obama singled out Georgia State for helping more college students find pathways to graduation. He specifically mentioned the success with Panther Retention Grants in his address to hundreds of college presidents and education leaders who gathered to chart the course for increasing college completion.

In August 2015, Timothy Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success, testified before a U.S. Senate panel detailing the university’s success in increasing student graduation rates. Renick was asked to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on higher education by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

“I bragged about Georgia State University, in particular the Panther Grant program, which is an innovation of the university used today to ensure students on the verge of dropping out … receive the assistance needed to stay in school and graduate,” Isakson says.

Renick and other education experts were asked to testify at the hearing, which focused on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and ways to improve graduation rates.

“Georgia State still has much work to do,” Renick told the committee, “but our story demonstrates that significant improvements in student success can come through embracing inclusion rather than exclusion.”

Boulware, who graduated from Georgia State in 2013, now teaches her students to be responsible for their own futures.

“A lot of them are dealing with things I dealt with when I was over 18,” she says, “and they’re 11.”

In her three years at Pinkneyville Middle School, Boulware has met students who are homeless, whose parents abuse drugs and who bounce from one relative to the next.

“I want to be the person who helps them make it through,” she says. She often tells students who are struggling, “We can’t control what comes to us, but we can control our responses and how we choose to proceed. We can lie down and decide to wallow in self-pity, or we can push forward and try to change our story.”

Student Success

The data-driven Student Success Initiative has got the data to prove its success. Over the decade in which the university rolled out the various programs that comp0se the initiative, six-year graduation rates have soared from 32 percent in 2003 to 54 percent in 2014. African-American and Latino students have made bigger gains with increases of 36 and 34 percentage points, respectively.

During this same time, the university redoubled its efforts to serve students who are traditionally underserved and thereby graduate at lower rates. While graduation rates rose, so too did the enrollment of low-income students. From 2003 to 2013, low-income students who were eligible to receive Pell Grants increased their numbers from 31 to 58 percent of the student body.

These results have made Georgia State a model for institutions around the world who seek to serve their students better.

More than 200 colleges from across the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Holland and South Africa have visited Georgia State in the last two years to learn about its innovative retention programs. The South African visitors included 65 administrators and educators from multiple universities.

“In post-apartheid South Africa, they’re obviously struggling with achievement gaps between white students and students of color,” Renick says. “So they came.”

Their trip was funded by the Kresge Foundation, whose administration believes that Georgia State’s program could be replicated at other institutions, Renick says.

The results and the international attention are honors for the university. And clearly there is a strong business case for Student Success, too. Low graduation rates drive away resources, including tuition and fees. But international acclaim or the need for a healthy bottom line are not the driving forces behind Georgia State’s Student Success initiatives.

“Allowing for these gaping discrepancies in educational attainment,” Renick says, “is not good from an economic perspective. It’s not healthy for our communities, for our tax base and so forth. But much more profoundly, to have those kinds of gaping discrepancies is a matter of social injustice.”

Sonya Collins is an Atlanta-based independent journalist who covers health, health policy and scientific research. She is a regular contributor to WebMD Magazine, Pharmacy Today, Genome and CURE.

Photos by Ben Rollins