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Georgia State University Is A Model For Milwaukee-Area Colleges Pledging To Close Graduation Gaps

Courtesy of Georgia State University
Students at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Four Wisconsin colleges are using Georgia State as a model to close equity gaps.

Four southeast Wisconsin colleges have made an ambitious pledge: to close racial and income-based graduation gaps within the next 10 years.

UWM, MATC, UW-Parkside and Carthage College signed on to an initiative called Moon Shot for Equity, led by Washington, D.C.-based education consultant EAB. It involves reimagining how colleges support students in an effort to eliminate equity gaps.

>>Four Southeast Wisconsin Colleges Pledge To Close Racial Graduation Gaps

It will likely be an uphill battle. Milwaukee-area colleges have graduation gaps as large as 20 or 30 percentage points between white students and their Black and Hispanic peers.

WUWM's Emily Files' extended interview with Tim Renick, Georgia State’s former vice president for student success, that aired on Lake Effect.

But UWM and the others say Georgia State University proves that it’s possible. Since 2012, Georgia State has overhauled the way it supports students. Now, Black, Hispanic and low-income students there graduate at average or better than average rates.

“We began to use data, not to point fingers at others … but rather to say, let’s understand what we’re doing that’s tripping up students,” said Tim Renick, Georgia State’s former vice president for student success. “How we admit students, how we advise them, how we distribute financial aid, how we register them.”  

Credit Courtesy Georgia State University
Tim Renick has overseen Georgia State's student support innovations as senior vice president for student success.

Georgia State worked with EAB, an education consulting firm, to incorporate predictive analytics into its advising system.

“We were losing 5,700 students every year to college drop-out,” Renick said. “We wanted to find out, what was happening to all these students? Why were they walking away from the university without a degree? So we did a big data project.”

They combed through student records to find behaviors that correlated to students dropping or flunking out, and found 800 warning signs, from the grades students get in classes related to their majors, to registering for the wrong class, to an outstanding tuition balance.

Now, the university tracks on a daily basis when students run in to one of these early warning signs and an advisor reaches out to them to offer help.

“None of this work is targeted by race, ethnicity or income level, but not surprisingly, the biggest gains from this system are students who come from so-called underserved backgrounds,” Renick said. “It’s students who don’t have parents or brothers and sisters who’ve gone to college before, who don’t have this invisible support system, that benefit the most when we start supporting students in the way we always should have. We should have never assumed that students know how to navigate this big bureaucracy that is college.”

In addition to the predictive analytics-based advising system, Georgia State launched a micro-grant program to help students who are at risk of dropping out due to financial reasons.

"We should have never assumed that students know how to navigate this big bureaucracy that is college."

The university also changed the way students choose majors, by using “guided pathways.” Instead of expecting students to pick a specific major as soon as they walk in the door, students choose a general field, like business or arts, and learn more about the choices in those fields during their first semesters before committing to a specific degree.

“Asking an 18-year-old, especially a first-generation, low-income student to choose from 85 majors, sets them on a path to failure, at least a large number of them,” Renick said.

Renick will serve as a consultant to UWM, MATC, UW-Parkside, and Carthage College as they embark on the Moon Shot to Equity initiative. Renick says colleges have both moral and practical reasons to take a more active approach to support students.

Many schools, including those in Wisconsin, are grappling with declining enrollment and a shrinking pool of high school graduates. That makes student retention even more important for colleges’ financial security.

“A lot of campuses are going to be struggling if they don’t hold on to the students they already enroll,” Renick said. “And the best way to do so is to support students. They’ve raised their hand saying they want a college degree and we’re not doing enough to make sure they can follow through.”

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.