Georgia State Professor—and Student Success Innovator—Awarded McGraw...

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Georgia State Professor—and Student Success Innovator—Awarded McGraw Prize in Education

from The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education

By Kelli Anderson     Jul 23, 2018

Georgia State Professor—and Student Success Innovator—Awarded McGraw Prize in Education

For 30 years, the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education has been one of the most prestigious awards in the field, honoring outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education through innovative and successful approaches. The prize is awarded annually through an alliance between The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation, McGraw-Hill Education and Arizona State University.

This year, there were three prizes: for work in pre-K-12 education, higher education and a newly created prize, for learning science research.

From among hundreds of nominations, the award team gave the Learning Science Research prize to Arthur Graesser, Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Institute of Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis. Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, won the pre-K-12 award. The higher ed award honored Timothy Renick, Senior Vice President for Student Success and Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University. The three winners received an award of $50,000 each and an iconic McGraw Prize bronze sculpture.

At Georgia State, Dr. Renick has overseen some of the country’s fastest-improving graduation rates while wiping out achievement gaps based on students’ race, ethnicity and income. EdSurge spoke with Dr. Renick about how upending conventional wisdom, the moral imperative of helping students succeed and how navigating college is a lot like taking a road trip.

EdSurge: You’ve said that instead of focusing so much attention on making students more college-ready, we should be making colleges more student-ready. That’s a fascinating concept. How was Georgia State failing in that regard, and how did you address the problem?

Tim Renick: We were failing in multiple ways. Ten years ago, our graduation rates hovered around 30%, meaning seven out of ten students who came to us left with no degree and many with debt and nothing to show for it. If students aren’t succeeding semester after semester, it’s easy to assume it’s not us, it’s them.

But what we’ve done at Georgia State is look at where we were creating obstacles. When we began to remove those obstacles, students not only started doing better overall, but the students who were least successful under the old system—our low-income students, our first-generation students, our students of color—did exponentially better.

Source: The McGraw Prize in Education; watch video on Vimeo here.

One of your hallmark initiatives is GPS Advising, which uses predictive analytics. What drew you to that technology to help students?

We are a big institution, which means students leave a large electronic footprint every day—when they sign up for classes, when they drop a class, when they get a grade, and so forth. We thought, why don’t we use all this data we’re already collecting for their benefit? So back in 2011, we ran a big data project. We looked initially at about ten years of data, two and a half million Georgia State grades, and 140,000 student records to try to find early warning signs that a student would drop out.

We thought we’d find a couple dozen behaviors that had statistical significance, but we actually found 800. So every night when we update our student information systems, we’re looking for any of those 800 behaviors by any of our enrolled students. If one is discovered—say a bad grade on an early math quiz—the advisor assigned to that student gets an alert and within 48 hours there’s some kind of outreach to the student.

How has this changed the student experience?

In the past, for example, a STEM student would get a low grade in a math course. The next semester they’d take chemistry. They’d get a failing grade in that course because they didn’t have the math skills. The next semester they’d take organic chemistry. By the time anybody noticed, they already had three Ds and and an F under their belts and were out of chemistry as a major.

Now when a student is taking that first quiz, if they didn’t do well on it and especially if they are a STEM major, there’s an alert that goes off. Somebody engages the student and says, do you realize that students who don’t do well on the first quiz often struggle on the midterm and the final, but we have resources for you. There’s a near-peer mentor for your class. There’s a math center. You can go to faculty office hours. There are all these things you can do!

If we can catch these problems early and get the student back on path, we can increase the chances they will get to their destination, which is graduation.

How widespread is this type of predictive analytic use? Could elite, well-resourced schools such as your alma maters—Dartmouth and Princeton—benefit from GPS Advising?

When we launched our GPS Advising back in 2012, we were one of maybe three schools in the country that had anything like daily tracking of every student using predictive analytics. There are now over 400 schools that are using platforms along these lines.

And yes, even elite institutions suffer from achievement gaps. Like us, they are interested in delivering better services. One of the innovations we developed out of necessity was the use of an AI-enhanced chatbot, an automated texting platform that uses artificial intelligence to allow students to ask questions 24/7 and get immediate responses. In the first three months after we launched this chatbot, we had 200,000 student questions answered.

That might seem like a need for a lower-resourced campus like Georgia State. But then you go to a place like Harvard, and they say, ‘well our students live on their smartphones, too,’ and they don’t want to come into an office or call up some stranger to get an answer to a question. They want the answers at their fingertips. So there’s a lot that we developed by necessity that may be part of what becomes the norm across higher education over the next few years.

How much has your background as a professor in Religious Studies influenced your current work?

Quite a bit. My specialty is Religious Ethics. I believe unabashedly that there’s a moral component to the work we’re doing. It’s not ethically acceptable for us to continue to enroll low-income, first-generation college students—almost all of whom are taking out large loans in order to get the credential that we’re promising them—and then not provide them the support that gives them every chance to succeed.

Can you tell us about how your work has supported one of those students?

My favorite story is of Austin Birchell, a first-generation, low-income student from northern Georgia who was a heavy user of our chatbot when we first launched it. Sadly, Austin’s dad died when he was 14. His mom was having great difficulty getting a job again. She said specifically that everybody who was getting the job she was up for had a college degree. So Austin made a vow that he wasn’t going to let that happen to him.

He did everything right—got straight As, earned a big scholarship and decided to attend Georgia State. Then he got his first bill for the fall semester. It came in the middle of July and it was for $4000 or $5000 more than he had anticipated. Like a lot of first-generation students, he initially blamed himself. But he got on the chatbot and discovered that on some form his social security number had been transposed, so his scholarship wasn’t getting applied to his account. The problem got fixed. Austin and his mother were so relieved they took a bus to campus to pay at the cashier’s office because they didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

If we hadn’t changed the way we approach the process, Austin had every chance of being one of those students who never makes it to college, not through any fault of his own. It’s not acceptable to live in a world where someone like Austin loses out on college because we didn’t do our job.

How would you like to see your work impact higher education in general?

That’s a good question. What I’d like to be part of is a change in the conversation. For a generation, we’ve thought that they key is getting students college-ready. So all the pressure falls upon K-12 or state governments or public educational systems to prepare students better. What the Georgia State story shows is that we at the post-secondary level have a lot of control over the outcomes of our students. Changing simple things—like the way we communicate with them before they enroll, or the advice we give them about their academic progress, or the small grants we award students when they run into financial difficulty—can be the difference between graduations rates that are well below the national average and graduation rates that are well above it.

We are graduating over 2800 students more than we were in 2011, and we are now conferring more bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans than any other college or university in the United States. We’re not doing it because the students are more college-ready—our incoming SAT scores are actually down 33 points—we’re doing it because the campus is more student-ready.

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