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Innovative program helps even the playing field for poor students — and boost graduation rates

For Georgia State’s Tyler Mulvenna, a $900 grant from an innovative retention program let him live on campus, work less and do what he came to do: study. The school, worried about abysmal graduation rates for poor students found, a full course load, commuting and holding a job was just too much for many. The NewsHour's April Brown takes a look at the program praised by President Barack Obama.

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    Most colleges are out for the summer, but some students will return in the fall facing a continuing challenge: Can they afford the cost to complete their degree?

    April Brown takes us to Georgia, where one school is working to improve the odds. It's part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.


    Georgia State is definitely a school that I fell in love with even before I came to college.


    When Angelica Sanchez was a high school senior, she knew she was going to college, but she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to get to Georgia State.


    My parents didn't go to college, but my brother, my sister and I — we are first generation students.


    Apart from finding the funding, Sanchez, like many other first generation college-goers, needed help navigating the new world of higher education.


    I was actually really worried, just because my parents are very traditional, so they don't — and they don't really know what college is.


    About 10 years ago, the university realized it had a persistent achievement gap. Many of its low-income, minority and first generation students were graduating less often and dropping out more frequently than their white counterparts. That's when the school started aggressively using data to find solutions.

  • TIM RENICK, Vice Provost:

    Our overall graduation rates hovered around 30 percent, far too low.


    Tim Renick is vice provost at Georgia State.


    We knew we had to change, we knew we had to serve students better, but we also knew that we didn't have a lot of resources. What we did have is the data.


    They had a lot of data, and began analyzing it to figure out what was tripping up students.


    We went back, we looked at over two-and-a-half million Georgia State grades, 140,000 student records. And what we found in the data were about 800 different things, 800 things that, in a statistically significant way, correlated to students flunking out or dropping out of Georgia State.


    Those 800 things, from whether students register for the right classes to their grades, are monitored for every student by academic advisers like Tony Davis.

    How do we know that they're on track?

  • TONY DAVIS, Academic Advisor:

    So, what's happened is the department — so the nursing department in this case — has identified several key courses as marker courses, so they need to be taken within a certain time frame, and they're looking for a minimum grade.


    The program also tells Davis whether a student is at high risk.


    You can see with this student that she's missed several key success markers. This is a big red flag. Is the student not passing her courses? Is the student withdrawing from their courses, which usually indicates a bigger issue of some kind? That lets me know I need to reach out to this student.

    It would be just as easy as clicking this, messaging her, and voicing my concern.


    Data and other research also allowed Georgia State to figure out that sometimes just a few hundred dollars can help students stay in school or overcome other barriers to success.

  • TYLER MULVENNA, Student:

    It was very difficult to be able to pay for everything.


    Tyler Mulvenna is one of the recipients of the Panther Retention Grant, named after the school mascot. Tyler, who is the first in his family to go to college, says the $900 he received allowed him to focus more on his classes after struggling with school, a full-time job, an internship and a long commute.


    I wouldn't be living in Atlanta now. I couldn't be working 40-hour weeks while doing that and commuting at the same time. I think that I would have ran myself ragged.


    Georgia State spent $3 million last year on Panther Retention Grants, and is upping that to $4 million in the next academic year. The school estimates its return on those investments is more than 200 percent. But it's the improved student outcomes that has earned the school national praise from President Obama, among others.


    We're going to have to make sure that more students can make it all the way across the graduation stage. Georgia State University, just to cite one example, is developing a new system to give small grants to students who might be a little behind on their bills.


    And educators across the country are taking a closer look at the school's other targeted interventions that have closed the graduation gap between low-income, minority and first generation college-goers and their white peers.

  • ANDREW NICHOLS, The Education Trust:

    They have made a significant amount of progress in a short amount of time.


    Andrew Nichols is a researcher at the nonprofit Education Trust. He says the achievement and graduation gaps are a problem in colleges across the country.


    Nationally, the graduation rates for students who enroll at four-year institutions is about 60 percent. The graduation rates for low-income students at those institutions is about 50 percent. For African-Americans, it is about 40 percent, and for Latinos, it is about 55 percent.


    Even though Georgia State's deep dive into data has garnered a lot of attention, Nichols says many institutions may not be able to implement or afford such a detailed system. But he does point out that Georgia State has also been very good at scaling and tweaking some more frequently used tools to improve student success.


    They looked at courses that had high rates of withdrawal and failure. And so they identified these courses and redesigned their curriculum completely. They were leveraging a lot of more common interventions, such as summer bridge programs, using supplemental instruction and freshman learning communities.


    Fortune Onwuzuruike is now a senior and president of the student government association. But as an incoming freshman, he was very skeptical about Georgia State's summer bridge program.


    I thought it was a horrible idea, because it's straight out of high school going straight into college, it's like, I didn't even get to enjoy my summer.


    He quickly became a convert.


    It really is a head start. You get seven additional credits to your bachelor's degree, so you are already ahead of — in front of the freshman class that's coming in. You also get to meet different people, get a head start in getting involved on campus, knowing your way around campus.


    Rising sophomore Angelica Sanchez says the program that really helped her feel comfortable at Georgia State was its freshman learning community.


    It was really amazing to be able to be part of a program that had familiar faces, just like high school did, and the people who are in all your classes were the same people who had the same interests as you. So it was really easy to find friends, and it made you felt like you belonged on campus.


    Sanchez is now very confident that, with the school's support, she and thousands of her peers will make it to graduation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm April Brown in Atlanta.

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