Author Spotlight: A Conversation with Andrew Gumbel

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

A college education has long been touted as a path to success, but earning a degree and navigating the bureaucracy of the institutions that grant them can be fraught for many students, especially first-generation, minority, and low-income students. Georgia State University isn't one of those institutions. Over the past decade Georgia State University has upended the conventional wisdom that large numbers of students are doomed to fail simply because of their economic background or the color of their skin. Instead, it has harnessed the power of big data to identify and remove the obstacles that previously stopped them from graduating and completely transformed their prospects. In the new book Won't Lose This Dream, journalist Andrew Gumbel delivers a thrilling, blow-by-blow account of this transformation through the stories of Georgia State's visionary leaders who overcame fierce resistance to institute change and stories of students whose resilience and determination, often against daunting odds, inspired the work at every stage.

In the interview below, author Andrew Gumbel discusses how Georgia State University improved student achievement, the lessons other institutions of higher education can learn from Georgia State, and the challenges the coronavirus pandemic might pose to their progress.

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Many of the reforms at Georgia State University have centered around putting students’ needs first. Isn’t that what every university does?

Andrew Gumbel: You would think that higher education was all about the students, but the reality is different. Most universities are not in fact designed with undergraduates in mind. Deans and department heads tend to be more interested in research and graduate studies. Course schedules are often designed to suit the professors, not the students, who often find that a class they need is full, or clashes with a paying job they can’t afford to quit, or isn’t available for another semester.

The reality hits especially hard at lower-income students, minority students, and first-generation students, who routinely face obstacles that decrease the chances that they will be admitted, even when they deserve to be, and greatly increase the chances that they will drop out before graduation, even when they are doing fine academically.

SATs and other aptitude tests skew decisively toward students whose parents are financially comfortable and have college degrees themselves—which is why Georgia State looks much more closely at high school grade point averages and why other institutions are starting, belatedly, to take a similar approach. The financial and other bureaucratic forms required of freshmen before they set foot on campus are daunting enough to deter a significant percentage of admitted students, almost always at the lower end of the income scale.

The campus experience itself presents several further obstacles. Students may not be able to fulfill core requirements fast enough because of scheduling clashes they cannot control. Or they may get discouraged if they struggle in their chosen major and do not receive timely advice on what might suit them better. They might find that they are unable to register for class because of an outstanding library fine or parking ticket—and may have to stand in line or wait on the phone for hours just to find out what the problem is so they can address it.

Georgia State came at these problems with a couple of key insights. First, the university should assess each student based on individual need, and meet that need accordingly. Creating a special program for a particular group of students based on ethnicity, say, would not get the job done, because ethnicity does not tell administrators anything about a student’s skills, passions, strengths, or weaknesses. Second, student success is intimately tied to financial stability. Every extra dollar that a student falls short makes it a little more likely that he or she will drop out. The university realized it needed to design an undergraduate program that whisked the lower-income students through their course requirements as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they could take advantage of state and federal grants while they lasted and take on only as much debt as they could tolerate to cover the rest.

Georgia State hit on another important insight too: that students thrive when they feel they are being heard. When an undergraduate at a university as large as Georgia State understands that he or she is being monitored and nurtured and kept on track, and when help is close at hand to work through financial difficulties, or a health crisis, or the often confusing campus bureaucracy, it provides a psychological boost as valuable as the interventions themselves.

It seems incredible that so many students from mediocre high schools who have to spend twenty hours or more working outside jobs have the capacity to handle high-level classes in calculus, or biology, or political philosophy. Is Georgia State really helping its students, or just going easy on them?

AG: If anything, standards have gone up over the past decade. One of the most important myths that Georgia State has put to rest is the notion that demographics is destiny—in other words, that if you are born poor or nonwhite or both, you are more or less doomed to failure. The truth is that most students are determined, ambitious, extraordinarily resilient, and extraordinarily responsive to an institution that responds to them. They will do more or less anything to pursue their dreams of a college degree: work around the clock, sleep in their car when money runs short, find workarounds to seemingly intractable bureaucratic problems—the many stories of personal grit and survival in Won’t Lose This Dream are both breathtaking and inspiring. It used to be that certain departments at Georgia State saw it as their job to weed out the weaker students instead of providing them with the skills that their high schools failed to give them. Now the mentality is: if they are good enough to be admitted, they are good enough to graduate. And the students themselves have amply rewarded the faith that the university has placed in them.


"Georgia State hit on another important insight too: that students thrive when they feel they are being heard. . . . It provides a psychological boost as valuable as the interventions themselves."


In story after story told in the book, success comes down to being offered a little extra support where it is most needed. What are a few support programs that Georgia State University has implemented that have had a major impact? Why don’t other institutions offer these?

AG: A lot of Georgia State’s ground-breaking programs are about finding the inflection point between success and failure and making the right nudge in the right direction early on, before a struggling student turns into a student in crisis. Nowhere has this been truer than in the revolution in academic advising, which used to be reactive—meaning that students needed to show up at the advisement office to take advantage of it—but is now entirely proactive. Every student receives the help of an advisor to draw up a class schedule on day one, and hears from the advisement office right away if he or she has triggered an alert—because of a weak grade in a core class, say, or because he or she is late registering for the next semester’s classes, or for any one of hundreds of other reasons that Georgia State’s data systems monitor every day in real time. Students struggling in their chosen majors are no longer left to flounder, as they often were before, but are directed quickly either to a related field or to something entirely different, based on the student’s interests and strengths.

The same principle of swift and effective early intervention applies across the board. The university’s artificial intelligence chatbot is able to keep admitted students on track to fill the financial and other paperwork needed before the first day of class. A summer academy aimed at freshmen with promising high school GPAs, but gaps in their transcripts and/or low SAT scores, manages to give students regarded as among the most vulnerable an invaluable head start. A brilliant micro-grant program ensures that deserving students are not forced to withdraw for lack of a few hundred dollars but can pay the tuition fees for the upcoming semester. The way the grant works, the university tracks everyone’s finances and academic progress, and the money simply shows up in a student’s university account with no application necessary.

It’s not accurate to say that other universities do not have similar programs, because many of them do. The online platform that Georgia State helped pioneer for its advisement services, to take one example, has been sold to hundreds of other institutions. What is not yet common is for other universities to turn themselves upside down, as Georgia State has done, so student success becomes the driving mission by which all campus interest groups—deans, department heads, unions—measure their performance and are themselves measured. A software package can’t on its own erase achievement gaps or raise graduation rates. What is required is a top-to-bottom institutional rethink, and it is often difficult for institutions, even ones that admire Georgia State’s work and want to emulate it, to win over campus constituencies afraid of change or of losing their power.


"A lot of Georgia State’s ground-breaking programs are about finding the inflection point between success and failure

and making the right nudge in the right direction early on, before a struggling student turns into a student in crisis."


In our current moment where the structures of systemic racism and the many inequities in our society are being called out, what lessons can Georgia State’s experience offer?

AG: First, it’s important to note the achievement. For many years now, Georgia State has had no achievement gaps whatsoever. Black and Latino students have, if anything, modestly outperformed the university average when it comes to graduation rates and GPA. There is no difference between the performance of Pell grant recipients (defined by the federal government as low income) and the children of wealth and privilege. This is a unique achievement, and on an enormous scale. Since 2008, Georgia State has almost doubled the number of lower-income students it admits. And its undergraduate population, once overwhelmingly white (and, in the segregation era, exclusively white) is now 70 percent nonwhite. No institution in the country graduates more African Americans each year.

Tim Renick, the pioneer behind Georgia State’s student success revolution, likes to remind people that the campus is just a few blocks from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached and launched the civil rights movement. Racial justice is certainly a big motivator for Renick and his team. It is also important to many students, faculty, and staff on a campus of extraordinary diversity in the heart of a city, Atlanta, that has proven remarkably dynamic, both socially and economically.

At the same time it’s important to remember that Georgia politics as a whole remain deeply conservative. In the thick of the most important student success reforms, from 2009 to 2012, Georgia State made its case to the state university system and to the state legislature not by talking about racial justice but by emphasizing the economic benefits of higher graduation rates in a region crying out for skilled labor of many different kinds. Interestingly, the public universities that have made the most progress in helping lower-income and minority students have tended to be in southern red states: not just Georgia, but also Florida and Tennessee.

The economic benefits extend to the universities themselves, because retaining students for longer means more revenue, both from tuition fees and from state and federal grants. There is no student success program at Georgia State that does not easily pay for itself.

So one important lesson is that, as a practical matter, leading with the economic argument can often be more effective than leading with the social justice argument.

Both are crucial, though.

In the wake of this summer’s protests over the George Floyd killing in Minnesota, Georgia State’s president, Mark Becker, has had to answer a lot of questions about faculty and staff diversity, which has lagged significantly behind the changing demographics of the undergraduate student body. In response, Becker has accelerated a process already under way to increase diversity at the highest levels of the university and has personally endowed a scholarship named for three Black women who sued to be admitted to Georgia State in the dying days of the segregation era.

Clearly, there is more to be done. Faculty and staff diversity are arguably a student success issue too; students can connect to the institution much more easily when they see role models who look like them, and who may have had similar early life experiences. It may be no coincidence that Tim Renick’s student success shop, and the advisement center in particular, is significantly more diverse than the university staff as a whole.


"When used smartly, data collection systems not only keep track of what university administrators are seeing but also show them things they cannot see for themselves."


Why is big data so important to Georgia State’s success? Is there a Big Brother aspect to the way the university monitors its students?

AG: From the beginning, Tim Renick’s team wanted to find ways to deliver results at scale, and data technology proved revolutionary. When used smartly, data collection systems not only keep track of what university administrators are seeing but also show them things they cannot see for themselves. What GPA cutoff best guarantees success in the upper-level business program? What does a student’s first-semester test grade in organic chemistry say about her likelihood of completing a natural sciences major? Or qualifying for a place in the highly competitive nursing program? Data not only answers such questions with precision, it also provides a factual basis for winning over faculty groups who may be resistant to change.

There is nothing furtive or underhand about data collection at Georgia State because the university has to abide by strict federal student privacy rules. It does not monitor when students swipe their cards to enter their dorms, say, or keep track of what they are ordering in the cafeteria. Rather, the student success team looks at grades, class registrations, university accounts—all part of what they would have access to anyway when talking to students one-on-one, only now they are aggregating hundreds of thousands of data points to make those student conversations more informative and valuable.

Does the coronavirus pandemic put any thought of improving student outcomes on hold?

AG: It’s important to distinguish between different kinds of institutions and the way the pandemic is affecting them. Private universities whose business model is to court high-achieving students and offer them a unique campus experience are facing both a financial crisis, because of loss of revenue from housing and, in many cases, tuition, and an existential crisis because they are likely to look a lot less attractive to applicants for the foreseeable future. Public universities can expect deep cuts in funding from state legislatures, but they are also likely to see increased demand for enrollment as unemployment soars and many more people look to college as an alternative to a job that may be hard to come by. Many institutions are now likely to determine, as Georgia State determined in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, that admitting, retaining, and graduating more students may be the most promising way to offset the coming budget crunch. In other words, the question of how to improve student outcomes is more pressing now than ever—and Georgia State has invested considerable time and effort in both explaining and arguing for its model to hundreds of other interested universities around the country.

Has the coronavirus pandemic slowed Georgia State’s progress?

AG: Georgia State had a remarkably successful spring semester in 2020, with an almost unbelievable online class attendance rate of more than 98 percent and record GPA and graduation rates. Part of that success was due to the fact that Georgia State students are expected to become familiar with technology platforms from day one, so moving to online classes was less of a lift than at other colleges. Those struggling to make ends meet didn’t have to fight traffic, or pay for gas to get to class, which helped offset the economic collapse that came in the pandemic’s wake. Georgia State used the same data tools to direct federal emergency money to students that it has used in the past to monitor students’ university accounts and pay out micro-grants. Where other institutions asked their students to fill application forms, or made the uncomfortable decision to give every student the same amount regardless of need, Georgia State had the information to disburse $22 million in federal grants, in amounts ranging from $200 to $2,000, within 24 hours of receiving the money from Washington.

Of course the pandemic has presented plentiful challenges, not least to the idea that students should group together in pods of twenty-five based on their academic area of interest and help each other both socially and with their school work. The pods, known as learning communities, still exist, but hosting them online is of course not the same. The fall contains plenty of unknowns—in terms of public health, student well-being, and anticipated deep cuts in state funding. But a cost-effective, efficiently run public university like Georgia State looks like a much safer proposition in uncertain times than an expensive, out-of-state private school. Enrollments are expected to hit record highs as a result.

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For more on the topic of higher education, check out our reading list "8 Books on the Past, Present, and Future of Higher Education in the United States."


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