Once a college dropout, Cary Claiborne now has two degrees from Georgia State. His unique insight into the university experience makes him exceptionally qualified to help lead and administer Georgia State’s Student Success initiatives at Perimeter College.
written by Ray Glier | photography by Bill Roa | posted on May 1, 2017
Cary Claiborne (B.S. ‘11, MBA ‘15) has had those meetings in the mirror where he has asked himself, a student, “How do I pay for this?”
In the same mirror, he has beaten himself up over poor grades. But he has also felt disregarded, cast aside. Claiborne did not want to be coddled, he just wanted a map to get through college, maybe some encouragement to go with it.
So, there is no better ambassador than Claiborne — a former college dropout — to help lead Georgia State’s push on its five, two-year campuses with its Student Success initiatives. The university created a national model with the initiatives on the four-year side — the graduation rate at the downtown campus has soared the last four years — and now attention is being turned to Perimeter and its at-risk students.
Claiborne is an assistant director in the University Advisement Center for Perimeter College. He is holding the flashlight for the core functions of the initiatives, which are the “predictive analytics” and a culture of caring and intervention.
For instance, it is his job to meet with students who have two jobs and are trying to work toward a degree. He wants to help them find a way to go down to one job and do more school work.
“Can we get them eligible for the Hope Scholarship?” he said.
It is his job to initiate collaboration among freshmen, search out tutors and make college less intimidating to students, especially first-generation students who may not have guideposts.
Claiborne wants to make sure students do not become him. He was a dropout, though he prefers the term “stop-out.” It is Claiborne’s job to react quickly to the triggers that send a student away from the college without earning a degree.
“What you typically get in higher ed is a lot of people who never really failed like I did,” Claiborne said. “They’ve never been in that situation. I bring in that perspective.
“This is the mindset of a student going through this: they are working two jobs, they are trying to balance things. They could be first-generation college students and they don’t know what that balance is.”
Claiborne, 33, arrived in Atlanta as a teenager from New Jersey, and might as well have been a first-generation college student. His father earned a college degree, but Claiborne arrived here and promptly went into a ditch.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said.
In 2005, he started at Georgia Perimeter College, which was a stand-alone two-year college, and his grade point average was a microscopic .4. Georgia Perimeter “excluded” Claiborne, which is a more delicate way of saying he flunked out.
Claiborne went to work as an electrician and worked on the renovation of the Georgia State basketball offices. He saw students daily walking to class and kept telling himself, “That should be me going to school.”
Claiborne went to Atlanta Metropolitan State College in 2009 to rehabilitate himself as a college student and earn his Associate’s degree. He applied to Georgia State University to continue his studies but was denied admission. Claiborne wrote an angry letter of appeal and got the help of a transfer admissions counselor in submitting it. Georgia State relented, and he got in.
In 2010, while working on his Bachelor’s degree, he started working in the Student Advisement Center as a work-study student. By 2011, Claiborne had an undergraduate degree from Georgia State and a 3.2 grade point average. After graduation, he continued working in the advisement center as an Academic Advisor and eventually earned an MBA in May 2015.
Georgia State has given Claiborne tools to create more success stories like his.
One tool that comes in handy is Georgia State’s record. Over the past decade, the university has increased its graduation rate by 22 points. Georgia State is graduating 1,700 more students a year than just five years ago while the rigor of course work has gone up. Georgia State has reduced the time to degree by half a semester, saving students $15 million a year.
Claiborne has some favorites in his toolbox to keep students on track to a degree.
The $500 micro-loan, the Panther Retention Grant, is a degree-saver.
A student may be approaching his senior year and he or she is short money for books, or even the final tuition bill. President Mark Becker started the program in 2013 and it has kept students in school, Claiborne said.
Perimeter also has access to the predictive analytics that can peer into a students’ profiles and see where they are going off course. The analytics can see students have multiple absences in a key class, which might lead to a poor grade, leading to disruption of the degree program.
“Our trigger sees problems and alerts us,” Claiborne said. “On the four-year side that had great impact and we brought it here to the two-year side.”
The other tool Claiborne sees as invaluable is not really a tool. It is a culture.
“One of the greatest things that affected me was having access to people who showed that they cared,” he said. “You can get lost in the shuffle. I had mentors and advisors who said ‘I want you to succeed.’
“The big thing is showing the empathy to students and telling them ‘I take this seriously.
I am going to champion your cause.’”
Perimeter, which has five campuses and an on-line program, has some work to do. The two-year degree rate of graduation is just 12 percent. In context, that also includes many students who attend Perimeter for a year and then leave for a four-year school, but they are still counted toward the final number.
The goal is to get the number up into the 30s. Georgia State couldn’t find a better flag-carrier to help lead that charge than Claiborne.