“Georgia State has been reimagined, amid a moral awakening and a raft of data-driven experimentation, as one of the South’s most innovative engines of social mobility.”
-- The New York Times, May 15, 2018
“It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude—and the national implications—of what Georgia State University has accomplished….By dramatically boosting its graduation rate and wiping out its achievement gap, Georgia State has demolished the excuses that college have generated to rationalize their abysmal track records.”
-- David Kirp, The College Dropout Scandal, 2019
“No other institution has accomplished what Georgia State has over the past decade.”
-- Bill Gates, October 2017
“Georgia State is a national example of how higher education institutions can support the success of all students, no matter their backgrounds or the challenges they may face in college.”
---Sara Levy, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, 2022
When it comes to higher education, the vision of the United States as a land of equal opportunity is far from a reality. Today, it is eight times more likely that an individual in the top quartile of Americans by annual household income will hold a college degree than an individual in the lowest quartile. Nationally, white students graduate from college at rates more than 10 points higher than Hispanic students and are more than twice as likely to graduate with a 4-year college degree when compared to black students. According to the United States Department of Education, Pell-eligible students nationally have a six-year graduation-rate of 39%, a rate that is 20 points lower than the national average. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated inequities in higher education and may serve to make reducing these differences even more difficult for colleges and schools across the nation.
Certainly, these challenges are faced at Georgia State University. In 2003, Georgia State was the embodiment of these national failings. The institutional 6-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students stood at 32% and underserved populations were foundering. Graduation rates were 22% for Hispanics, 29% for African Americans, and 18% for African American males. Pell students were graduating at a rates more than 10 percentage points lower than non-Pell students.
Today, thanks to a campus-wide commitment to student success and more than a dozen strategic initiatives implemented over the past several years, Georgia State’s equity gaps based on race, ethnicity and income are largely gone. The institutional graduation rate for bachelor-degree seeking students has improved by more than 20 points—among the largest increases in the nation over this period (See Appendix, Chart 1). Rates are up 36 points for Hispanics (to 58%), and 31 points for African Americans (to 55%). In fact, for seven consecutive years African-American and Hispanic students, have graduated from Georgia State at or above the rates of the student body overall—an all-but unprecedented accomplishment for a large public university. Pell eligible students currently represent 55% of Georgia State University’s undergraduate population—more than 26,000 students. The vagaries of the pandemic are reflected in a slightly lower graduation rate for low-income students this year (55% compared to 53%). However, on average since 2010, the graduation for Pell eligible students has outperformed that of non-Pell students at Georgia State though the Pell population has nearly doubled during this period (Chart 2). Even with the challenges associated with teaching and learning over the last couple of years, Georgia State University tied its 2nd highest graduation rate for both its bachelor’s and associate’s level students. (Chart 2) Tracking these cohorts using National Student Clearinghouse data, 70% of Baccalaureate students had graduated and 78% had graduated or were retained after six years. As positively, time to degree has decreased by almost 11 hours at Georgia State University in a little more than a decade. Estimates are this saved the class of 2022 more than $21 million compared to the class of 2010. (See Chart 3)
For the fourth consecutive year, Georgia State University awarded more than 10,000 degrees in the academic year. This includes 7,424 undergraduate degrees (representing an 75% increase since 2010), awarded more than 5300 bachelor’s degrees including a record number of degrees to Hispanic students (740, up 151% since 2010) and to Asian students (990, up 81% since 2010) (Charts 4 and 5). Georgia State now awards more bachelor’s degrees annually to African American, Hispanic, first generation, and Pell students than any other university in Georgia. In fact, six years ago Georgia State University became the first institution in U.S. history to award more than 2,000 Bachelor’s degrees to African American students in a single year, a metric it has matched every year since (with 2,089 awarded this past year). No other college or university in the U.S. has done so even once. (Chart 6) According to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, for the eighth consecutive year Georgia State conferred more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other non-profit college or university in the United States. Georgia State is also ranked first nationally in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred to African Americans in a number of specific disciplines: biology, finance, foreign languages, history, marketing, psychology, and the social sciences.
Importantly, students are succeeding in some of the most challenging majors at Georgia State. Over the past decade, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields has increased by 179% overall, 166% for African American students, 210% for African American males, and 411% for Hispanic students, far outpacing their enrollment growth over this time period (Chart 7).
The news is also encouraging at Perimeter College, Georgia State’s associate-degree-granting college that enrolls nearly 16,000 students. Consolidation between Georgia State University and Perimeter College was finalized in 2016, only about six years ago. We are making exceptional progress. While there is still more work to be done, since consolidation, the Perimeter 3-year graduation rate has almost quadrupled, rising from 6.5% to 23% (Chart 8). Significant progress has been made increasing success outcomes for all students. Since the year before consolidation was announced, graduation rates for Hispanic students have increase by 20 points. They have increased by 17 points for white students, 14 points for black students and 16 points for students who are Pell eligible. Just like on the Atlanta campus, equity gaps have narrowed significantly. In 2020 for the first time, African American, Hispanic and Pell students all graduated from Perimeter College at rates at or above those of the student body overall. As recently as 2015, white students were graduating from Perimeter at rates more than two-and-a-half times the rate of African American students. In 2020, both white and African American students graduated at the same rate—exceptional progress in such a short period of time. While the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Perimeter’s low-income and African American students, reopening some gaps in 2021, the fact is that Pell students and African Americans are graduating at rates more than four times higher than they were prior to consolidation. The elimination of equity gaps based on race, ethnicity and income level has been a distinctive and much-discussed accomplishment of Georgia State’s Atlanta campus, and the rapid progress in this area at Perimeter College lends credence to the view that Georgia State’s unique data-based, proactive and systematic approach to student success—an approach now being implemented at Perimeter—helps level the playing field for students from diverse backgrounds (Chart 9).
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2020), 83% of Perimeter students now graduate, are retained, and/or successfully transfer to four-year institutions within three years of first enrollment, ranking Perimeter College 20th in the nation (among 2,000+ community colleges ranked). Despite steep declines in Perimeter College overall enrollments in the years leading up to consolidation and new declines brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, associate degree conferrals also have still increased, with 2100 degrees awarded in 2021-22. This number was down from a high of 2336 in 2020-2021, but it still represents a more than an 11% increase since consolidation (Chart 10). Perimeter College now ranks 15th in the nation for the number of associate degrees awarded to African Americans annually. There is more to be done at Perimeter College, but early results have been transformative.
A core part of Georgia State’s mission is to serve all students in Georgia. As such, the most foundational principle guiding our student-success efforts has been a pledge to improve student outcomes through inclusion rather exclusion. In the 2011 Georgia State University Strategic Plan, we committed to increasing the number of underrepresented, first-generation and Pell students enrolled and to significantly improving graduation rates for all groups while eliminating equity gaps. The consolidation with Perimeter College, with its thousands of students who fall into federal at-risk categories, is one example of this deep commitment to inclusion. We also committed to achieving improved outcomes for our students not merely while they are at Georgia State but in their lives and careers after graduation. This year Georgia State is formulating a new strategic plan around foundational pillars articulated by GSU President, Dr. M. Brian Blake. These pillars include both student success and college to career, (as well as research and innovation and identify and placemaking) and reaffirm Georgia State University’s commitment to ensuring that students for all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.
Over the past six years, Georgia State University’s student-success accomplishments have been the subject of growing levels of national attention. Highlights include:
Motivated by a desire to make an impact not only in the lives of its own students but also in the lives of students nation-wide, Georgia State University has made a conscious and significant commitment of time and resources to sharing with others the lessons that we have learned. Over the past several years, Georgia State has hosted teams of administrators and faculty members from more than 500 colleges and universities enrolling 3 million students, all seeking to learn more about our student-success programs. Visiting campuses have included almost every university in the University System of Georgia (USG), institutions from forty-seven U.S. states, as well as universities and national governing boards from the Netherlands, Great Britain, Bavaria, Georgia, Australia, Colombia, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, New Zealand, and South Africa. Major national organizations—including Achieving the Dream, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU), the American Council on Education (ACE), Complete College America, and the U.S. Department of Education—have also turned to Georgia State for its expertise in the area.
In order to better support this dissemination work, as well as to incubate the next-generation of student-success innovations, Georgia State University established the National Institute of Student Success (NISS) in October 2020. In its first two years, the NISS is already delivering diagnostic and coaching services to more than two-dozen campuses nationally, including six in the state of Georgia. In addition to the diagnostic and coaching services that allow NISS staff to work with individual campuses, the NISS has also developed a self-service online teaching and research portal (the Accelerator) that has accessible content for anyone wanting to learn more about best practices to increase student outcomes. To further disseminate best practices in student success, the NISS includes a research team focused on evaluating innovative programs in a manner that continues to advance the data-informed strategies that have been successful in this work.
The central goal that we have set for our undergraduate success efforts is highly ambitious, but the words were chosen carefully: Georgia State will “become a national model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.”
In 2011, Georgia State University committed to reach a graduation rate for bachelor-degree-seeking students of 52% by 2016 and 60% by 2021. We also committed to conferring 2,500 more degrees annually than we did in 2010 and to eliminating all significant equity gaps between student populations. More recently, we committed to doubling the graduation rate of our new associate-degree seeking students from the 2014 baseline over a five-year period. This year, President Blake challenged the University community to reach a bachelor’s graduation rate of 66%.
On the surface, attaining these goals seems implausible. Georgia State’s demographic trends—characterized in recent years by huge increases in the enrollments of students from underserved populations—typically would project a steep decline in student outcomes. Georgia State University, though, has been able to make dramatic gains towards its success targets even as the student body has become far more diverse and less financially secure.
The 2011 Strategic Plan also outlined key strategies to achieve these goals. We made a commitment to overhaul our advising system, to track every student daily with the use of predictive analytics and to intervene with students who are at risk in a proactive fashion, to expand existing high-impact programs such as freshman learning communities and Keep Hope Alive, to raise more scholarship dollars, to pilot and scale innovative new types of financial interventions, and to open a new Student Success Center. After the launch of the strategic plan, we introduced additional programs such as the Success Academy, meta-majors, Panther Retention Grants, College to Career, and an AI-enhanced chatbot to guide students through administrative and academic processes
The strategies have worked. Since the launch of Georgia State University’s 2011 Strategic Plan, each of the new programs outlined in the Strategic Plan has been successfully launched—and the new Student Success Center building will open in 2024. Our institutional six-year graduation rate for bachelor-degree-seeking students has increased by 7 percentage points from 48% to 55%, while Georgia State’s cross-institutional six-year graduation rate this year reached 70% (Chart 11). It is important to note that, due to frequent changes in jobs and economic circumstances, low-income and first-generation students and their families transfer frequently than do middle- and upper-income college students. This phenomenon significantly impacts Georgia State’s institutional graduation rate. When including Georgia State students who transfer to and graduate from other institutions (with the vast majority doing so from other schools within the University System of Georgia), the six-year bachelor’s graduation rate reached 70% in 2021; and the percent of students who either earned a degree or were still actively enrolled reached 78%. The four-year graduation rate has improved even more dramatically, with a 14-percentage-point increase, from 21% to 35%, between 2010 and 2022 (Chart 2).
The news is equally positive for Perimeter College. In the six years since consolidation was announced, the graduation rate for associate-degree-seeking students at Perimeter College has more than tripled, moving from 6.5% in 2015 to 23% in 2022—far exceeding the strategic goal of doubling the rate by 2021. Just as impressively, as previously happened at the Atlanta campus, equity gaps based on race, ethnicity and income level have been narrowed significantly at Perimeter College. The year prior to consolidation, white students were graduating from Perimeter at rates two-and-a-half times those for African Americans. By 2020, white and African American students are graduating at the same rates. Although following the pandemic some equity gaps began to emerge, 83% of Perimeter students are now graduating, successfully transferring, or are still enrolled after three years—a rate that ranks Perimeter College 20th among more than 2,000 community colleges nationally according to The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2020).
Georgia State University conferred more than 7400 undergraduate degrees during the 2020-2021 academic year, representing a 3202-degree increase (75%) over the baseline year of 2011 (Chart 4). The total now far exceeds the Strategic Plan’s target to increase undergraduate degrees awarded by 2,500 annually by 2021. Perimeter College awarded 2100 degrees in the 2021-2022 academic year (Chart 12).
Even though no major Georgia State initiative is targeted by race, ethnicity or income level, the gains have been greatest for students from underserved backgrounds. In recent years, Georgia State University has conferred record numbers of bachelor’s degrees to Pell-eligible, first generation, African American, and Hispanic students (Chart 4). Since the 2010-2011 academic year, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred to Pell students has grown by 50%, conferrals to African American students have increased by 56%, and degrees awarded to Hispanic students have grown by 151%  (Chart 5).
Georgia State’s combination of large enrollment increases of students from underserved backgrounds and significantly rising graduation rates confounds the conventional wisdom. How has Georgia State accomplished these unprecedented gains?
Georgia State’s student-success strategy has been consistent and unconventional. We have not created programs targeted at students by their race, ethnicity, first-generation status, or income level. Rather, we have used data to identity problems impacting large numbers of Georgia State students, and we have changed the institution for all students. Georgia State University has consistently asked the question, “Are we the Problem” and worked to remove administrative obstacles to student success. In the process, the University has redesigned outreach and onboarding, 1st-year support, guided student pathways, career readiness, academic support, academic advising, financial wellness and cohort resources, in a manner that significantly lowers bureaucratic barriers to college completion for students. Though well intentioned, institutions inadvertently hinder student success. Changing these practices has resulted in significant, positive results at Georgia State. One of GSU’s successful high impact strategies, the Panther Retention Grant, was recently used as a model to expand a completion grant program to all the school in the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. In May 2022, Governor Brian Kemp signed House Bill 1435, to remove the financial aid gaps that impede degree completion for senior students.
Georgia State University continues to innovate and develop strategies to increase student success. Georgia State was one of the first four institutions in the country to utilize an A.I. enhanced chatbot in admissions, reducing “summer melt” by more than 30% since its launch in 2015. In 2018-20219, GSU expanded the use of the Chatbot to support the enrollment needs of continuing bachelors and associates-level students. Students with access to the chatbot completed key tasks such as removing holds from their accounts, addressing account balances and meeting with advisors when prompted to so at rates 30-40% higher than their counterparts not using the chatbot. Building on these successes, GSU recently launched an academic chabot to support student learning in the classroom. Beginning with a pilot in an American Government course, half the students in the class received specialized chat bot messages and half did not. American Government was selected because it is a large class known for its high DFW rates. Students who got the messages were reminded about assignments and exams and received messages reviewing course content as well as sample test questions where students could evaluate their readiness. The results were remarkable. Chatbot students were 16% more likely to earn a B or higher. First generation students earned grades 11 points higher than those not receiving chatbot support. The Chatbot represents another example of removing bureaucratic barriers to success. This pilot is being expanded other classes this fall as we begin to scale the benefit of this intervention to more students.
Georgia State University is testimony to the fact that students from all backgrounds can succeed at high rates. Moreover, our efforts over the past few years demonstrate that dramatic gains are possible not through changing the nature of the students served but through changing the nature of the institution that serves them. How has Georgia State University made the gains outlined above? How do we propose to reach our ambitious future targets? In one sense, the answer is simple. We employ a consistent, evidenced-based strategy. Our general approach can be summarized as follows:
Our work to promote student success at Georgia State has steadily increased graduation rates among students from all backgrounds, but it has also served to foster a culture of student success among faculty, staff, and administration. As the story of Georgia State University demonstrates, institutional transformation in the service of student success does not come about from a single program or office but grows from a series of changes throughout the university that undergo continual evaluation and refinement. It also shows how a series of initially small initiatives, when scaled over time, can significantly transform an institution’s culture. Student-success planning must be flexible since the removal of each impediment to student progress reveals a new challenge that was previously invisible. When retention rates improved and thousands of additional students began progressing through their academic programs, for instance, we faced a growing problem of students running out of financial aid just short of the finish line, prompting the creation of the Panther Retention Grant program. It also led to a new analytics-based initiative to better predict and address student demand in upper-level courses. Problems we faced with Summer Melt, seniors stopping out for financial reasons, and pandemic-related struggles for incoming students have each led to significant, new innovations—all of which have been adopted by other universities nationally. For a timeline of where we have been and where we are going next, please see Chart 13.
Georgia State still has much work to do, but our progress in recent years demonstrates that significant improvements in student success outcomes can come through embracing inclusion rather than exclusion, and that such gains can be made even amid a context of constrained resources. It shows that, even at very large public universities, we can provide students with systematic, personalized supports that have transformative impacts. Perhaps most importantly, the example of Georgia State shows that, despite the conventional wisdom, demographics are not destiny and equity gaps are not inevitable. Low-income and underrepresented students can succeed at the same levels as their peers—if we support students by systemic and proven approaches. We owe our students no less.
 The Pell Institute (2015) Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 45 Year Trend Report (2015 Revised Edition). Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_45_Year_Trend_Report.pdf
 U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2014) Table 326.10: Graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor's-degree- seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, time to completion, sex, control of institution, and acceptance rate: Selected cohort entry years, 1996 through 2007. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_326.10.asp.
 Horwich, Lloyd (25 November 2015) Report on the Federal Pell Grant Program. Retrieved from http://www.nasfaa.org/uploads/documents/Pell0212.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2014) Table 326.10.
 All charts can be found in the Appendix.
 Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 2018. http://diverseeducation.com/top100/pages/BachelorsDegreeProducers2017.ph... State University&dtstate=&dtpage=0
 Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 2018. diverseeducation.com/top100/pages/AssociatesDegreeProducers2017.php?dtsearch=&dtrace=&dtmajor=&dtschool=Georgia State University\-Perimeter College&dtstate=&dtpage=0
 President Barack Obama (4 December 2014) Remarks by the President at College Opportunity Summit. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/04/remarks-president-college-opportunity-summit.
 Georgia State University (2012). Strategic Plan 2011-2016/21. Retrieved from http://strategic.gsu.edu/files/2012/09/GSU_Strategic_Plan_2016-2.pdf
 Georgia State University (2012) College Completion Plan 2012: A University-wide Plan for Student Success (The Implementation of Goal 1 of the GSU Strategic Plan). Retrieved from http://enrollment.gsu.edu/wp-content/blogs.dir/57/files/2013/09/GSU_College_Completion_Plan_09-06-12.pdf
 The metric used by The Chronicle of Higher Education here includes students who successfully transfer from Perimeter College within three years, whether or not they are actively enrolled in the transfer institution for the fall term three years after first matriculation. As reported elsewhere in this document, 68% of Perimeter’s 2018 freshmen had earned an Associate degree or were actively enrolled during the Fall 2021 semester. This is a more rigorous metric.
 Actual percent increases were much higher in these two categories, but we have controlled for the effects of the University implementing more rigorous processes encouraging students to self-report their race and ethnicity.
 For more information please see: Page, Lindsay C. , Katharine Meyer, Jeonghyun Lee, and Hunter Gehlbach. (2022). Conditions under which college students can be responsive to nudging. (EdWorkingPaper: 20-242). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/vjfs-kv29