Changing universities – not students – to boost success

Universities are honour-bound to defy conventional approaches to students, otherwise they merely perpetuate inequalities for disadvantaged students that the higher education system has been producing for decades, said Dr Tim Renick, vice-president for enrolment management and student success at Georgia State University in the United States.

He was addressing the second annual Siyaphumelela Conference on student success, held in Durban on South Africa’s east coast from 28-30 June, on the policies the university had adopted to shift its student success rates.

Internal research had uncovered over 800 issues affecting drop-out rates – and students from households earning in the country’s top 25% bracket were 10 times more likely to acquire a degree than those in the bottom 25%.

In 2003 Georgia State University had a 30% graduation rate. But more significantly, there was a disproportionate gap between the success rate of white students and those of other ethnicities – African American, Latino and Asian – as well as between students from higher income brackets versus those from lower income households.

Responding to change

The university enrolment was 60% white students while today that has shifted to 63% black students, with a significant percentage qualifying for student loans and grants given their household income levels.

Between 2008 and 2012 the university also saw US$40 million slashed from its budget in line with the recession.

“The university realised it could not continue with its historic course when there was a clear demonstration for a need to change approach. We questioned what type of institution we wanted to be to accommodate the students of today and not those from yesteryear,” Renick said.

Essentially, management recognised that it could not expect students to change to fit into the university, but that the institution had to change to fit in with the new generation of students –typically first-generation university, lower-income students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds and education systems.

“Despite the differences between South Africa and the US, there are distinct similarities in our student issues,” he quipped.

Need for career guidance

In changing its approach to the student body, Georgia State University recognised that most first-generation students had neither experience in choosing their careers nor had they been exposed to extensive career guidance during high school.

Consequently, the university instituted an online live job data platform that can provide anyone trawling its pages with information on careers, the qualification requirements, market scarcity, starting salaries and projected earnings based on experience and further education.

The website also applies algorithms to introduce searchers to related careers based on their search criteria. Someone searching for nursing may be informed about medical research or radiography as an example.

Creating learning communities

The next step involved developing a freshman learning community where students studying the same courses are divided into a 25-strong block. These students travel together, follow the same timetable and study as a group or smaller components in the larger entity.

“This way students, typically far from home and outside their family environment, can form new friendships and ‘family units’ that help them adjust to life on a large-scale campus. They are no longer alienated,” Renick said.

The university recognised that many students arrived on campus with weak mathematical skills and shifted its teaching approach for the introductory maths course from traditional lectures to a hybrid model where students interactively work on computer terminals at their own pace. Those with stronger maths skills progress more quickly, while the weaker students repeat exercises until they achieve the desired competency levels.

Renick said while the lecturers remain on hand to assist students, they are not left to merely sprout out knowledge from the lectern in the blind faith that the students are following their lessons.

The revised system also takes cognisance that the new generation of students lacks the social ability and standing to knock on lecturers’ doors and demand additional tuition because they had not followed the lesson in class.

The outcome was a 35% decrease in the drop-out rate for the introductory maths course and Georgia State University now exclusively offers this course in the new format.

Peer tutors, Panther retention grants

Another innovation was introducing peer tutors. Big data can equally identify struggling students as those excelling in courses and the university has devised a system that links weaker students with their stronger peers as a resource base.

The method again addresses the social ability issue where students are unlikely to demand attention from lecturers, but can more easily approach their peers for help.

Renick said the last element of the approach was the Panther retention grants, named for the university’s mascot and logo.

The university recognises students are dropping out virtually within touching distance of graduation because of finance – often amounts less than US$1,000, but still too much to pay at that point in their lives.

The retention grants assist with these outstanding payments, allowing students to complete their studies, with Renick indicating the return on investment was more than 200%.


Consequently, in the past decade the university has boosted its retention rates; lifted the credit hours students earned during a semester; and decreased the time required to complete degree by an average half-semester, thus triggering substantial savings within the US economy – and has received national recognition for its initiative.

More significantly there has been a 30% hike in degree conferrals when student intake has only risen 3% to 4%, “and the impact is more significantly felt among lower income, first-generation students where we are now seeing escalated levels of graduates by ethnicity”.

Big data also allows the university to track students across the country and Renick does not consider a student who left Georgia State University and completed their degree elsewhere as a failed student.

He encouraged South Africa to apply the same logic and collate data to better track students in their academic careers.

“The bottom line is, this approach has levelled the playing fields. These programmes can make a difference by systemically looking at the student experience and thus boosting the graduation rates, particularly among lower-income, disadvantaged students,” Renick concluded.