Georgia State University has one of the country’s highest numbers of students relying on Pell Grants to attend college. It is a diverse institution, with 63 percent of students recorded as non-white. But an even more meaningful statistic is that, while the university has doubled its enrollment of at-risk students recently, graduation rates have risen astronomically.
“We’re up 30 percent in the number of degrees across the board,” says Renick. “But we’re up almost 60 percent in degrees conferred to African Americans, up 90 percent in degrees for Pell Grant students and over 170 percent in degrees for Latino students.”
In effect, the achievement gap has been closed. The numbers tell a story, and that story says a lot about Renick’s belief in technology. “We’re not a particularly well-resourced university,” he says. “But we use data aggressively to put programs in place that address the problems our students face.”
Those programs include providing personalized attention to every student — something usually found at smaller private institutions — via a platform that tracks 30,000 students every day for 800 risk factors. Such factors include registering for courses that aren’t relevant to a degree program, or grades that dip. When that happens, the system sends an alert to the adviser assigned to that student to intervene and help the student stay on track.
In the last 12 months there have been 43,000 interventions with students. The university hired additional central staff and advisers to cope with the demands of such customized attention. Renick says this helps level the playing field — and it also gets to the heart of why he believes it is so important.
“There are all sorts of advantages that come with being a middle- or upper-class, multi-generational college student,” he says. “You have a support system and a family who helps guide you through some of the complexities of the college process. Our system gives that same kind of day-to-day monitoring and advice to all students, whether they have that kind of family support or not.”
Renick believes retaining students is the single best remedy for the many higher education institutions that suffered during the recession. Despite losing approximately $40 million due to state budget cuts, Georgia State University revenues have increased — thanks largely to improved student retention.
Under Renick’s auspices, technology has played a key role in raising the academic level among students. Prior to 2008, failure rates in introductory math courses were approximately 43 percent. “It was in many ways a roadblock to these students graduating,” Renick says. “Many would lose their scholarships because their GPA would go down. Others would just lose their will to persist because they got discouraged.”
Now, all introductory math courses are held in dedicated labs with separate terminals for students. Everyone works on the same material at the same pace, but uses adaptive learning exercises. “They get more questions and build up competency,” Renick says. “If they don’t understand something, they get immediate feedback. The rest of the class doesn’t whiz by them and leave them in the dust.” This approach has cut the introductory math failure rate from 43 percent to 19 percent in 6 years — and helped many more students graduate.
Renick believes technology can be a game-changer for student success. As someone who taught religious studies at the school for years, he mentions the moral imperative he once focused on in comparative religion classes. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says. “These are students’ lives and their futures are in the balance. If we can create much better success rates, and I believe we can, to sit on the sidelines would be irresponsible.”