Institutional transformation stories: Innovation, student success, and COVID-19: Five questions for Georgia State University


Over the last decade, Georgia State University has been widely recognized for its ability to increase the retention and graduation rates of its diverse student body. In 2015, we wrote a case study of Georgia State’s efforts and how robust data and evidence informed the decision making that helped lead to the advances in student success.

Recently, higher-education author and expert, Jeff Selingo, caught up with Tim Renick, the university’s senior vice president for student success, to see how the university has pivoted in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

How would you describe Georgia State’s move to remote education?

We’re doing better than we feared. The engagement is encouraging. We have taken an enrollment of 50,000 students this spring and converted, on a dime, to entirely online. Ninety-eight percent of our students are signing on to their classes.

A lot of the prep we’ve done at Georgia State over the last several years has been very useful under these circumstances. We have a student body that is 75 percent nonwhite and 60 percent Pell eligible. We’ve worked to deliver personalized services at scale to a student body that often can’t meet in person. They have limited time and complicated lives. Eighty percent are working. Many are responsible for their own children and siblings.

So, we had to create an ecosystem with technology in order to serve our students well before this crisis. All that has translated well to the online environment.

Academic advising is, of course, critical to students completing the semester and either graduating or returning next semester. How has your academic advising translated to the online environment?

For a generation, the model in higher education has been for students to self-identify that they had a problem and then to see someone in an office. At Georgia State, we had already moved well beyond that by using predictive analytics to reach out proactively to students. There are 800 risk factors built into that system, and when one is triggered, an adviser immediately contacts the student. What we’ve done over the last eight years has been entirely applicable to the current moment.

Since we moved to remote learning, we added new risk factors to those we were already tracking for advising. Are students logging on to their classes? Are they logging on to other systems we have at Georgia State? Are they completing their assignments? And we’ve set up alerts that go directly to our academic advisers when a student is failing to log on. In the first two weeks with our online-only operations, we had more than 3,500 alerts triggered to our academic advisers. Every one of those students was contacted. We think this is one of the reasons that 98 percent of our students are signing on to their classes—we’re catching any problems and resolving them quickly.

It’s been almost a seamless transition on the advising front. We were already doing video advising sessions since so many of our students work. Indeed, there hasn’t been a big drop in the meeting load of our 140 academic advisors, even as we moved online. It’s almost the same pace as before. We had 8,000 one-on-one virtual meetings in the first two weeks of online learning.

In addition to adding alerts to your advising system, how else have you pivoted your tools in this new environment?

We already had a chatbot that was communicating with students, sending them reminders or answering common questions they had. Students at Georgia State are no different than many students in that they don’t always read email messages from us—the average open rate is about 20 percent. So, we had to develop communication channels that were bi-directional, instead of us just telling the students things.

Now we’ve connected that chatbot, named Pounce (after our mascot), to the current moment to answer other questions from students, whether it’s about getting counseling help or assistance with online learning.

It’s also how we’re able to get answers from students quickly. When we shut down campus operations, we needed to know how many students had to stay in the dorms because they didn’t have a home to go back to. We sent a chatbot message. Within 10 minutes had an answer from 40 percent of the students in university housing.

We have 50,000 students enrolled this semester, so to do anything on a manual basis is a lost cause.

You mentioned earlier that 60 percent of your student body is Pell eligible and that 85 percent are working learners. Given the economic fallout of the pandemic, how are your students managing their finances?

The current moment creates a lot more stress for them. Many of our students had off-campus jobs in retail and restaurants that were the first to be eliminated in this crisis. We gave out a thousand emergency grants in the first two weeks.

We’re getting $22.6 million from the CARES Act [the federal economic relief plan]. It has mandated that we distribute this money quickly, within a couple of weeks. It also recommends that we prioritize students with the greatest need. There’s no way to do that in the traditional way higher education does financial aid—waiting for a student to submit an application.

For the last eight years, we’ve had a model here at Georgia State to distribute completion grants. We call these Panther Retention Grants. They are microgrants to help students who have holes in their financial aid or are at risk of dropping out. Rather than sit back and wait for them to come to us, we use our data to identity students at a critical moment and take pressure off of them. We have awarded 17,000 of these grants over the years.

That is exactly what is needed at this moment instead of waiting for students to come into some office and fill out a form. In distributing the CARES Act money, the Education Department said institutions can give the same grant to every student in the interest of speed, but it recommends funds be distributed according to student need. We’re looking at some of the same data sets we use for the retention grants—for students who are most needy and proactively getting the money to them. We’ll distribute 25,000 grants in 24 hours using that data-phased approach—though we also have a process were students can let us know if they are facing particular hardships.

What lessons are you learning from the current crisis that might end up sticking for the long run?

One thing is the virtual admissions tour. Most of our in-person admissions events are between 9 and 5, and many working students and their parents can’t make it here. Virtual events in the future will help us reach more prospective students.

Our call centers are also operating differently. The call center answers mostly questions about financial aid. Because they have 40 people working in a close physical proximity to each other, they had to close in the current environment. Working at home, however, doesn’t allow calls to come into a central location and then be routed to an agent. The staff working at home only have their cell phones. So, we had to move to a ticket system when students fill out information online and we call them back.

Because we know the questions being asked in advance of picking up the phone, we’ve doubled the number of cases we resolve every day. And we’re not clogging up the phone lines with questions that are easy to resolve.

In this new normal, that’s the kind of thing that’s working better that I can imagine keeping when we return to campus.