By Michael Davis (B.A. ’03)
At 31 years old, Ridge Hudson isn’t necessarily a typical college student. But he’s not atypical, either.
A native of Sylvania, Ga., Hudson has been working toward a bachelor’s degree in English off and on for a decade — taking classes, taking time off to work and save up, taking more classes. In 2019, he found himself a few hundred dollars short at the start of the fall semester. Having exhausted his student loans, he was faced with a choice between dropping classes he couldn’t pay for or working more hours, eating into the study time he needed for the classes he was already in.
Just in time, Hudson’s Georgia State balance was cleared thanks to a Panther Retention Grant, an automatic emergency micro-grant developed in 2011 and, so far, given to more than 19,000 students on track to graduate but, like Hudson, in danger of being dropped from classes because of modest tuition shortfalls.
“The grant was just that little extra boost I needed to kind of alleviate the pressure,” says Hudson, who will be a first-generation college graduate when he completes his degree this December. “I didn’t want to keep pushing off classes or cut my course load in half because I could only afford so many classes.”
Because only about 30 percent of students who leave Georgia State for financial reasons ever return, Panther Retention Grants were developed as a way to prevent students from losing momentum. According to Timothy M. Renick, who was head of what would become Georgia State’s division of Student Success when the program was developed, the university was the first in the country to scale up the use of automatic, data-driven micro-grants to try to hold onto students who were being dropped at a rate of about 1,000 per semester.
Over the past decade, Georgia State has developed, tested and deployed a suite of innovative programs that have helped students facing myriad hurdles to graduation — or getting enrolled in the first place. The success of these interventions has made Georgia State a national model for eliminating equity gaps, boosting graduation rates and making higher education accessible and rewarding.
The Panther Retention Grant also became the model for a statewide micro-grant program approved by Georgia lawmakers in early 2022.
Through the new National Institute for Student Success (NISS) at Georgia State, Renick and his colleagues are now helping leaders at institutions across the country and around the world better understand the challenges their own students face and how to eliminate them with proven strategies.
“These approaches are transferrable but require a technical expertise that’s not always readily found on college campuses,” Renick says. “That’s where the institute can help.”
Following the implementation of the Panther Retention Grant, Georgia State became one of the first three schools in the nation in August 2012 to deploy a system of predictive analytics to track and report on students’ daily academic progress. The system now examines more than 800 academic data points on each student each day, flagging an army of advisers to areas where students are, or are likely to begin, struggling. If a student majoring in accounting, for example, tanks on a quiz in a lower-level math class, their adviser reaches out to intervene with ways to find extra help. The system now results in more than 100,000 proactive meetings between advisers and Georgia State students every year.
In 2016, Georgia State pioneered a new approach to the problem known as summer melt — the phenomenon of students declaring their intent to enroll in fall classes following their senior year of high school and never registering.
With an artificial intelligence-enhanced chatbot known as Pounce, named for the university’s furry blue mascot, Georgia State enrollment officials are able to reach students through text messages with reminders of deadlines and step-by-step instructions on what to do to get ready for fall. Students are also able to interact with the bot by asking open-ended questions, like “When is the last day I can drop a class?” and get a response any time, day or night.
These and other efforts to better advise students, shepherd them through the college experience and ultimately ensure they graduate (many becoming the first in their families to do so) became what Georgia State is known for, and the results began to attract the attention of other university leaders and the media.
Georgia State also began to outpace storied institutions in some categories, taking the No. 2 spot for innovation ahead of Yale, M.I.T. and Stanford in U.S. News & World Report rankings for its use of technology to enhance student outcomes.
For Renick, who began his academic career as a professor of religious studies at Georgia State and later became the first chair of the department, getting diplomas in the hands of students and making sure they’re prepared for the workforce of the future is a moral obligation.
Renick was interested early on in positioning his small department favorably among others at the institution and used data to show it produced more credit hours per faculty member and sent more grads off to elite institutions than just about any other unit.
“Though we were small, we were beginning to use data in that aggressive fashion,” Renick says.
He could see beyond the data as well. Because some students took several classes he taught to complete their majors, he got to know them, and could see firsthand where students struggled. It wasn’t for their lack of ability, or their lack of effort. While some excelled and went off to Harvard and Cambridge, others left without degrees at all. That was the institution’s failure, he thought, not the students’.
“These students were getting swallowed up by the bureaucracy,” Renick says. “It could be simple things like not getting a form turned in on time or failing to remove a hold on their account or registering for courses out of sequence. All of these various administrative things were determining if students succeeded or not. I think we all agree that what should ultimately determine whether a student excels is their own effort and ability, not the accidental fates of our bureaucracy.”
In 2008, with the support of several deans across the university, Renick took on a new position as an associate provost and began leading campus-wide enrollment management reforms. As efforts to improve outcomes and remove roadblocks accelerated under then-President Mark P. Becker, who took office in 2009, Georgia State’s investments were paying off. The success led to the absorption of offices like Advising, Student Accounts and First-Year Programs.
Eventually, Renick was made senior vice president of the division of Student Success, making Georgia State one of only a handful of institutions with a cabinet-level position on student success reporting to the president of the university.
As Georgia State’s prominence rose over the past decade and the results of its approaches became widely studied and reported (a 25 percentage point increase in the graduation rate over a little more than a decade, awarding more bachelor’s degrees to African American students than any other nonprofit institution in the nation, ranking among the best in the nation for advancing social mobility), the attention began to bring into sharp focus a new need.
Leaders from campuses across the country and around the world were clamoring for insight on how Georgia State did it. Delegations from 500 schools serving more than 3 million students visited Georgia State in the four-year period just before the pandemic. The U.S. State Department brought teams of higher education officials from South Korea and northern Europe to visit Georgia State. Some campuses sent delegations for multiple visits to learn Georgia State’s methods. Some asked for in-depth meetings on advising approaches. Some asked to house fellows at Georgia State for extended periods to learn firsthand.
It became clear that Georgia State had something to offer in a way that no other institution could, and there was a hunger for it.
“Two years ago, we decided we would form a free-standing nonprofit within Georgia State to deliver this kind of know-how and this kind of support to other campuses and universities,” Renick says. “And that was the founding of the National Institute for Student Success. It came as a response to what was not only steady demand but, really, overwhelming demand.”
The National Institute for Student Success (NISS) was formed in early 2021 and has gone on to receive tens of millions in philanthropic support. Stepping down as senior VP for Student Success at the university, Renick became the institute’s founding executive director and has built a team of full-time staff and senior consultants experienced in Georgia State’s student success work, including leaders like Allison Calhoun-Brown, who served as Renick’s deputy and took over as senior VP for Student Success.
The Atlanta office of Bain & Company, a global management consulting company based in Boston, has worked on more than one occasion pro bono to help structure the coaching and support the NISS offers and train staff members to work in a consultative capacity.
Among the suite of services offered by the NISS is the Diagnostic and Playbook, an in-depth look at how an institution is serving students and how those services could be enhanced. It’s a starting point for colleges and universities interested in making changes on their campuses that will produce results.
Since the beginning of this year, the NISS staff has already completed and delivered 22 such analyses. More than 20 additional institutions are in various stages of engaging with the NISS’s experts.
Kelt Kindick, an advisory partner with Bain who is also on the NISS advisory board, said one of his firm’s philanthropic pillars is addressing inequity in K-12 and higher education, particularly in ways that are data-driven and replicable.
“We’re interested in working with organizations that have made it work and are interested in doing it at a much larger scale,” Kindick says. “And we saw the NISS as a wonderful opportunity to do that. I think the miracle of Georgia State is that none of these student success programs are aimed at just low-income students, or just minority students. They’re aimed at how the entire university operates.”
Russ Kavalhuna is among those taking a cue from Georgia State’s operation.
The president of Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Mich., Kavalhuna leads one of the region’s most diverse schools with high populations of Black students and students of Middle Eastern descent. Over half its students receive financial aid. Of its 150 programs, most are for two-year degrees.
“We see ourselves as the gateway to the American dream of the middle class,” Kavalhuna says. “And we see our future as becoming the best college in the region for student success initiatives, which is why we have studied very closely Georgia State University, Dr. Renick and the National Institute for Student Success.”
A former airline pilot turned federal prosecutor turned college administrator, Kavalhuna said he came to Henry Ford out of a passion for helping first-generation college students and first-generation Americans get access to public education. It’s why Henry Ford was among the first institutions to engage with the NISS and receive a Diagnostic and Playbook. And it’s why Kavalhuna is not shy when saying every aspect of Henry Ford College’s one-page strategic plan is informed by its work with the NISS and Georgia State.
“It is specifically outlined with clear, metric-based goals, and they are all related to student success,” Kavalhuna says.
The plan’s four strategic priorities are improving access by increasing enrollment of Black, Hispanic and underrepresented students, improving retention rates, closing equity gaps to award more credentials and helping more students transfer to four-year institutions.
The college this fall is also beginning to roll out programs pioneered at Georgia State like micro-grants and predictive analytics-based advising to help it reach those goals.
“We’ve built urgency by saying we need to do these things within two years,” Kavalhuna says. “So, we’re going to roll these out in the fall and hopefully by the winter have actionable data on their success, or lack thereof, and make adjustments for the next semester. We know none of these systems will be perfect, and we’ll have to update them every single semester, and that is what we have learned from the experience at Georgia State.”
Just as Kavalhuna expects to adjust Henry Ford’s student success programs based on real-time data, the NISS continues to adjust its toolkit and add to the body of student success knowledge.
In the coming years it will be doing so in Georgia State’s new Student Success Center, where it will benefit from being housed under the same roof as Georgia State’s entire Student Success apparatus — the practitioners doing the work to help Georgia State students alongside the innovative leaders developing and studying next-generation methods.
Occupying two historic buildings along Auburn Avenue, the Student Success Center will allow far-flung arms of the division of Student Success, now operating in seven different buildings, to form a cluster of student services in one location.
Vacant for around a decade, what are known as the Bell buildings at 25 and 27 Auburn Ave. were built in 1907 and 1922 to house Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co.’s switchboard operation. While work began last year to ready the buildings for what will be a $30 million renovation, Georgia State officials Sept. 12 will celebrate the kickoff of the project with a special ceremony at 10 a.m.
From the Student Success Center, the NISS’s research wing, the Incubator, will be able to work arm-in-arm with Georgia State practitioners on projects like the fall 2021 pilot of the first AI-enhanced chatbot used in a course setting. A group of 500 students in one of Georgia State’s largest courses — Political Science 1101 — was selected to participate in a randomized controlled trial led by Lindsay Page, the Annenberg Associate Professor of Education Policy at Brown University. Half of the students in Michael Evans’ class were selected to receive messages related to the class from the chatbot, and half did not receive the messages.
The PolsPounce chatbot, as it was called, produced stark results.
Receiving direct text messages about their class assignments, academic supports and course content increased the likelihood students would earn a B or higher and, for first-generation students, increased their likelihood of passing the class. First-generation students receiving the messages earned final grades about 11 points higher than their peers — a full letter grade.
Zul-Qarnain Hossain, a computer information systems major from Johns Creek, Ga., was among those receiving the messages.
“Hi – this is your reminder of upcoming due dates. Start week 2 by reading Dr. Evans’ announcement – it has essential info about extra credit and grades this week,” read one message. “PRO TIP: To stay ahead, look ahead. Exam 1 covers Chs. 1-3 & opens in 13 days,” read another.
Hossain says there were also messages of congratulations when he completed assignments, and messages checking in to see how he was doing during particularly stressful phases of the course.
“I felt like the PolsPounce bot was connecting a lot more personally to me,” Hossain says. “I felt like it was connecting me with the teacher even though the course was all online and not in person. So many classes I’ve taken, it’s just me logging in, reading, going through the questions and that’s it. But with the bot, it definitely helped me feel more connected.”
According to the study, among students who were not in their first year of college, those who received the chatbot messages were more likely to pass the class and less likely to drop their other Georgia State classes. Their final grades in the course were, on average, seven points higher than students not on the chatbot.
A similar study of the use of chatbots at Georgia State’s Perimeter College also produced promising results, and the NISS recently wrapped up a study on Panther Retention Grants.
“We’ve never had staff at Georgia State who could dedicate their full time to thinking about how we advance innovation in student success and how we evaluate it to make sure we show what works via not just intuition, but by evidence,” Renick says. “But Georgia State is committed to continuing to be a leader in innovation in student success and, through the institute and its Incubator, we plan to do just that.”
Photos by Meg Buscema