Can Financial Advisors Help More Students Graduate? One University...

Student Success

Can Financial Advisors Help More Students Graduate? One University Thinks So

By Marguerite McNeal     Dec 15, 2016

Can Financial Advisors Help More Students Graduate? One University Thinks So

This article is part of the guide: Crossing the Finish Line: Stories on Student Success and What Colleges Are Doing to Get There.

Seniors at Georgia State University thought they’d been pranked when the school told them not to sweat it if they couldn’t pay their bills. These students were in good academic standing and months away from graduation, but they had run out of financial aid and, in some cases, needed only a few hundred bucks to pay for the rest of their education. The gesture of making micro-grants to students was unheard of when Georgia State started the practice in 2011, but now other colleges have followed suit and run similar programs to keep students on track to graduation.

Georgia State is now taking the work a step further. It opened a new Financial Management Center this semester to identify students who are at financial risk of dropping out and intervene before it’s too late. It’s developing an early-warning system that uses predictive analytics to spot red flags in student finances, such as making late payments on bills for school or failing to send verification documents to receive federal financial aids, and alerts advisors so they can reach out to support students.

“No one has provided the kind of customer service that students need,” says Allison Calhoun-Brown, associate vice president for student success at Georgia State. The center isn’t there to collect bills or process paperwork. Instead advisors armed with data help students figure out how to make their payments and stay in school.

From academics to pocketbooks

Georgia State is a large public university, with 24,000 undergraduates enrolled at its campus in Atlanta. Its financial-advising efforts stem from years of work the university had already done using predictive analytics in academics. Four years ago, the university hired consulting firm Education Advisory Board to mine 10 years’ worth of student academic data, such as course enrollment and grades, and identify risk factors that could indicate if a student was likely to flunk a course or drop out.

“In the past we would allow so many of those instances to go undiagnosed and uncorrected,” says Tim Renick, vice president for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State. EAB built an early-warning system for the university that now tracks more than 800 risk factors—and flags instances where students might need some extra support.

Georgia State also hired 42 additional academic advisors, who reach out to students who are most at risk of dropping out. Over the past year, the alert system prompted more than 51,000 one-on-one meetings between students and academic advisors.

“The alerts provide information that in many ways is just commonsensical, but that we’ve never been able to deliver to students on a personalized basis at scale,” Renick says. “The information doesn’t have punitive effect on students. It doesn’t force them to change major or drop a course, but gives information when there’s time to act on it.”

Over the past year one of the most common interventions was telling students they’d signed up for the wrong courses. There were 2,000 instances where students accidentally registered for classes that didn’t count toward their major.

The early-warning system is working: Georgia State increased its four-year graduation rate by 9 percent over the past four years, and it closed the graduation rate gap between first-generation, low-income and minority students and the student body overall. The university received a $9-million grant from the Department of Education to scale its work across other institutions.

Preventive measures

Despite its success with academic advising, Georgia State had a hunch that the biggest challenge for students to stay in school is paying for it. Renick estimates that 80 percent of students who drop out of the university do so for financial reasons.

More than 60 percent of students at Georgia State are eligible for Pell grants, and many are the first in their families to go to college. “It’s not that any 17- or 18-year-old knows the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized college loans or how to do an annual budget particularly well,” Renick says, “but in the case of students who come from families with brothers and sisters and parents who have all gone to college, they have this support system giving them advice. They have people intervening and saying, No that’s not the right choice. What we haven’t been able to do is deliver that kind of support for all of our students equally.”

By combing through students’ financial data, Georgia State is looking for tipping points to identify behaviors that put students at risk for falling behind or dropping out. It found, for instance, that students who are slow to meet FAFSA deadlines are more likely to run into money troubles later in the semester.

At the Financial Management Center, which opened in mid-October, advisors use this information to reach out to students who are at-risk of getting into economic trouble. These staff members need a skillset that’s not typically found on university campuses. They have to be knowledgeable about financial aid rules and regulations, but also be able to explain these concepts and interact with students and families.

The center is also working closely with academic advisors. “The university has historically treated academics and finances like they’re completely separate things, but the student experiences them together,” Calhoun-Brown says. “Sometimes you can’t give good academic advice if you don’t understand the finances of students.”

Other universities are following Georgia State’s lead by starting “completion grants” programs that give small amounts of money to students in their final year of study to help them graduate. Ten schools in the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, of which Georgia State is one, have launched similar programs this academic year.

As colleges begin offering these micro-grants, they start to think about how to avoid the situation to begin with, says Shari Garmise, vice president for the APLU Office of Urban Initiatives and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities. “As people start to spend a lot of their time reactively supporting students, they start to ask the questions how do we change what we’re doing so that we’re not fixing it later.”

Right now many of the colleges are collecting and beginning to analyze student financial data with the goal of becoming proactive in their outreach. “Data only points the way, you still need the—often labor-intensive—support to help students,” Garmise says. “It is a high-tech, high-touch environment.”

There’s plenty of work to be done, even at Georgia State. In the middle of the semester, Calhoun-Brown paid a visit to the center and figured it would be pretty quiet, since students typically submit forms and answer financial questions during their first few weeks of classes. Instead she was overwhelmed by the crowd inside. “It was like the first week of school in there with the amount of students who still had questions and had need.”

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