The Student Success Gap

Marjorie Malpiede / January 11, 2019

Concern over disparities prompts new strategies for change

In December 2018, six U.S. Senators wrote a letter to U.S. News and World Report urging them to recognize schools that welcome underrepresented minorities as a measure for their prestigious college rankings. Their message was clear: if the federal government is going to subsidize higher education then institutions must reflect the longstanding goals behind financial aid, which include access, success and a pathway to economic participation.
To its credit, US News and World Report had last year given greater weight to the graduation rates of Pell grant recipients in a new category on social mobility.

But the fact that powerful voices are leveraging college rankings to wrest accountability for diversity says something about what’s going on within the system. It also raises concern about the deterioration of a long-held American belief that higher education is the ladder to prosperity for all.

Evidence tells us that a college degree is the key to a more comfortable standard of living, but data on disparities indicate that the promise is not realized across the board.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, while 60 percent of the wealthiest students complete their studies and graduate, only about 16 percent of low-income college students graduate.

Among students who started in four-year public institutions, Black students had the lowest six-year completion rate (45.9 percent). Only 22 percent of Latino adults in the United States (25 or older) have an associate degree or higher.

Equity is only part of the problem. According to the University Innovation Alliance, by 2025, the American economy will be short 16 million college graduates needed to fill jobs in the fastest growing sectors.

These numbers must be made up from a wider percentage of the population, including the fastest growing groups like Latino and first-generation Americans.

The alarm over the graduate shortage and the achievement gap has mobilized a range of stakeholders. These include higher education consortia, as well as business and advocacy organizations, who are working aggressively on “Student Success” – the ubiquitous term for retention and completion.

While similar efforts under previous names have been in place for decades, what seems different about these more recent efforts is the recognition that waiting for students to adapt to a flawed system is never going to solve the problem.

“There are a lot of stakeholders who are raising questions, even at very high performing institutions, about why their overall graduation rates may be 80 or 85 percent but for the Pell students they are 65 percent or 70 percent. What’s going on?,” said Timothy Renick, Ph.D., Senior Vice President for Student Success at Georgia State University.
“Why are students, based on demographics, either successful or not successful at this institution?”

Agents of Change
Georgia State is part of the University Innovation Alliance, a group of eleven presidents of large public research universities committed to increase degree completion overall and among low-income students specifically by sharing their data and experiences across the participating universities. Their name reflects their perspective that unless colleges and universities innovate and become more student-centered, as well as collaborative, the gap between who graduates and who does not will grow wider.

“These presidents came together out of a sense of urgency that we are not doing a good enough job producing high-priority degrees at scale, and we were doing a terrible job when it comes to serving low-income, first generation students and students of color,” said Bridget Burns, Executive Director of the Alliance. “This is affecting the economic competitiveness of our country.”

At odds with the extreme nationalism of the Trump administration is a growing recognition among U.S. employers and college administrators that collaboration between people of diverse cultures, incomes, races, and gender identities makes for richer ideas and outcomes.

“We are not tapping into the entirety of the talent, creativity, energy, drive and perspective of the entire population,” said Michael Crow, President of Arizona State and a member of the Alliance. “This greatly reduces our chances of success as a country unless we have unbelievable diversity in our educated population.”

The Alliance was officially launched in 2014 with a goal to produce an additional 100,000 degrees by 2022-2023, half of those from low-income students.

They are currently on track to produce 94,000 by 2022 and they have already increased their low-income degrees by 29 percent.

Burns credits their success to a number of factors including sharing what’s working among institutions, a rare occurrence in higher ed’s competitive environment. More than any other factor, Burns says, leadership is what it takes to move the needle on the achievement gap.

“There’s a million decisions that a university makes on a daily basis, but when the CEO decides to connect to a specific North Star, that’s where real change takes place,” she said. “It’s not about the president making this a priority. It’s about him or her saying ‘this priority is more important than other priorities.’”

Burns believes that large-scale student success takes a fundamental shift in the structure of institutions, moving from one designed around the faculty and administrators to one that places the student at the center.

“That’s hard change,” she said. “But we’ve seen our institutions make that change over time.”

Another important initiative involving higher education innovation comes from the National Association of System Heads (NASH). A consortium of public higher education systems across the country, NASH has been helping its members share best practices in retention and completion with the initiative “Taking Student Success to Scale.”

The original program has three strands: predictive analytics, which trigger interventions for students who are struggling; math pathways aimed at eliminating barriers within the discipline; and high impact practices.

With a grant from the Lumina Foundation, NASH is now working specifically on High Impact Practices (HIP) for student success with four systems and 22 campuses over the course of two years.

The initiative will examine and develop intentional mechanisms for equitable participation from low-income, first generation and underrepresented minority students – a key part of the organization’s mission.

“By undertaking these efforts across a network of systems, rather than independent campuses, this project demonstrates that working at a system level and on a larger collaborative scale is an effective way to promote student success as defined by educational quality and deeper learning,” said Claire Jacobson, Program Director.

As higher education collaboratives push innovation, organizations that advocate for student population sub-groups are also trying new strategies.

Excelencia in Education is a national resource and policy organization focused on increasing degree attainment for Latino students who, despite gains over the past five years, continue to lag behind their white peers in college completion.

Excelencia’s President, Sarita Brown, and its CEO, Deborah Santiago, founded the non-profit in 2004 to support Hispanic-serving institutions with evidence-based practice-sharing and data to promote excellence in Latino education.

While they continue to engage a portfolio of institutions, they are adding an accelerator for change in the form of the “Seal of Excelencia” – an asset-based initiative that recognizes and educates institutions hoping to stand out in this area.

“Our work has been effective for institutions who want to enroll more Latino students, but overall we feel the pace of change is too slow,” said Brown. “We want to move from a construct that is focused on enrollment to one that is really about mission to serve.”

With plans to officially launch in the first quarter of 2019, the Seal of Excelencia is a voluntary certification system based on a framework that reflects what the organization has learned about serving this population over time.
Schools that sign on to the Seal will receive technical assistance to achieve excellence in three areas: Producing accurate data that show positive movement among six metrics including enrollment, retention and degree completion; engaging in evidence-based practices that have led to improvement in the six metric areas; and demonstrating leadership, including the execution of a strategic plan involving the president and board of trustees.

“We’re looking for intentionality,” said Santiago, who developed the Seal. “We want to work with “student-ready” colleges. Not schools that are waiting for ‘college-ready students.’”

70 colleges have already asked to participate in the Seal of Excelencia initiative. According to Santiago, these are not just schools with high concentrations of Hispanic students; but rather, any school that wants to learn what it takes to admit, support and graduate these students at scale and then gain recognition for their efforts.
She points to shifting demographics as a key motivator for the early adoption of the program.

“The number of high school graduates will drop significantly over the next fifteen years and when people look at who they are going to enroll it’s going to be Latino students if they want to stay in business,” she said.

Boots on the Ground
The rankings, recognition and collaborations within higher education are all meant to inspire action where it matters the most – on individual campuses across the country.

Once a segregated institution, Georgia State University now graduates more African American students than any college in the country. Located in the “Sweet Auburn” section of Atlanta next to the Martin Luther King memorial and MLK’s famous Ebenezer church, Georgia State is a thriving, multi-racial academic community.

Since 2012, Georgia State has raised its graduation rates overall by 23 points and no longer has an achievement gap. For each of the last four years, Black, Latino, first generation and low-income students have all graduated at or above the rate of the student body overall.

A member of the Alliance for University Innovation, as well as NASH, Georgia State President Mark Becker made increasing graduation rates for these population groups “the priority among priorities” over a decade ago when he put Tim Renick in charge of student success.

Renick is somewhat of a celebrity in student success circles and speaks frequently about his proven formula at Georgia State as a way to help other schools who are taking action in this area.

His purview at the school includes admissions, financial aid, first year programs, academic advising, international student services, and tutoring, among other areas.

Founded in the 1950s as a night business school for Georgia Tech, Georgia State began admitting a much larger share of students of color and low-income students over the decades. Today it has one of the largest low-income student populations in the country with 60 percent of its students Pell-eligible, and 71 percent of its student are non white.

Renick, who has been at Georgia State throughout its transformation, says that year over year the school was enrolling more students from demographic groups that, for a variety of reasons, the university did a poor job of graduating. In an unprecedented move, the school held a mirror to itself and determined it was a big part of the problem.

“We recognized that a lot of the reason students were failing was not their fault but our fault as an institution. We saw really hard-working students who had complicated lives, who were very capable of achieving academically but who would be tripped up by the bureaucracy, tripped up by the lack of support.”

By the late 2000s, the school decided to do things very differently. It invested heavily in data and technology which are applied to each of its key improvement initiatives.

A new portal for incoming students now helps eliminate the frustrating barriers related to financial aid processing and other issues that result in a large percentage of admitted students never showing up, what is commonly called “summer melt.”

In addition to the portal, Georgia State became the first post-secondary school in the country to use an artificial intelligence chat bot to help students with the myriad of questions related to enrollment and onboarding.
The app, called Pounce after the school mascot, answered over 2000,000 commonly asked questions during the first three months after it was first introduced. The school reduced summer melt by 20 percent.

Changing majors can negatively affect all students but it hurts low-income students the most when forced to take on extra classes.

To eliminate this trap, the school created meta-majors that have more flexibility. First year students join learning communities within their majors that provide a support system for navigating college for the first time. In addition, the school hires hundreds of high-performing work study students to be peer tutors and de facto role models.
One of Georgia State’s most well-known student success initiatives is its use of predictive analytics to identify and intervene with students who are at risk of dropping out.

Using historical data from over 2.5 million student grades, Georgia State sought to discover identifiable behaviors that correlated in a statistically significant way to students leaving school.

They were able to identify 800 factors – e.g., getting a C on an early-semester Calculus exam – that are now tracked across the student population.

If any of these behaviors are identified, an alert is sent to the advisory team which then intervenes with that student within 48 hours.

Renick says that last year, the school had over 55,000 one-on-one meetings between advisory staff and Georgia State students that were prompted by alerts coming from the data platform.

Renick says these efforts are all geared towards not leaving anything to chance, given what’s at stake for these students.

But what may be most interesting about Georgia State’s success story is that it raised the graduation rates for low-income students and students of color without specifically targeting these groups.

“By changing the system, we increased success for the entire student population,” he said. These changes benefitted the least advantaged students the most because these were the students getting tripped up the most by the old bureaucracy. That’s how we closed the achievement gap.”

Colorado State University is a land grant university in Fort Collins, Colorado, a small city that regularly ranks among the nicest places to live in America.

It enrolls about 28,000 students, the majority of them in-state. With a curriculum that leans toward STEM, the school has worked hard to increase its retention and graduation rates with a series of student success initiatives. As a member of NASH, it has shared its story with other schools.

Rick Miranda, the school’s Provost and Executive Vice President, oversees the university’s initiatives. He says that over 12 years ago the school did an analysis of student need vs. services offered and came to the conclusion that students were not receiving consistent and reliable academic advice.

“We knew we needed to do a better job at guiding first and second year students through their academic path and intervening with them before situations become critical,” he said.

One of their first and most effective changes was building a core of professional advisors that would be deployed within academic departments to help students succeed.

The academic success coordinators, as they are called, help first and second year students with many of the same issues Georgia State students experience – the pace and amount of credits, choice of major, and prioritizing required courses.

The coordinators are entry-level professionals with a bachelor’s degree in a major closely related to the department they are assigned to.

They work closely with faculty in identifying and supporting struggling students.

“This is not only good academic design,” Miranda said. “It is also a way to put a face on the institution; to give students a person that is knowledgeable about the school and cares about them.”

Miranda says the program has been particularly effective with first generation and low-income students who can suffer from the added stress of paying for college.

Given its effect on student success, low income is one marker Colorado uses to assess whether incoming students will need more support.

The others are: high school academic performance beyond just test scores (i.e., did they take math and English all four years?); and a category on cognitive markers, like mentors and family relationships or whether a teacher was particularly influential.

“When students reveal those things through the application process, we know that they’ve been self-reflective and have a little more confidence that they’re going to be successful here,” he said. “If you don’t see any evidence of those cognitive markers, then we start asking more questions.”

At Colorado State, the student success journey involves a variety of different approaches. Like Georgia State, Colorado State also saw the value of learning communities that bring students of similar interests together.

Their “Key Academic Communities” include a co-curricular element where the 25 or so students of similar majors have at least two classes together and live together in the same residence hall.

In addition to their academic advisors, students are assigned mentors through the Community for Excellence program.
While they are sometimes faculty members, these mentors provide mostly non-academic support, such as connecting students to resources throughout the college and helping with health and wellness.

“We have found, both in our research and from our own experience, students who have been able to attach themselves to some community on campus – whether it’s academic or co-curricular – really benefit in terms of student success, particularly students who have some concerning elements in their profile,” said Miranda.

Colorado State’s multi-pronged strategy has yielded good results thus far, taking their retention rate from the low 80 percent range to the high 80 percent range.

For the first time in history, the school’s graduation rate increased to over 70 percent last year.

Considering the school continues to enroll a higher percentage of low-income and first-generation students, this milestone suggests that their student success work is reaching those who need it the most.