If anywhere was going to take a pummeling from the coronavirus, you’d think it would be a place like Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta.
Georgia State is not a glamorous flagship university – that would be the University of Georgia in Athens, the spiritual home of the Bulldogs, REM and the B-52s. It’s more of a workhorse public institution, with a large population of students who come from low-income households and have to work at least one paying job outside their studies to make ends meet.
Those jobs – in restaurants, in retail, in bars – largely evaporated in the spring, and most have not returned. The crisis has hit particularly hard at the lower end of the income scale – and close to 60% of Georgia State’s students are poor enough to qualify for federal aid. It has also hit African Americans and other ethnic minorities particularly hard – and 70% of Georgia State’s students are people of color.
Yet Georgia State has not been pummeled. In fact, its graduation rate this spring hit a record high. So did the grade-point average of its graduating class. Not only did attendance not drop in the hurried shift to remote learning; it went up – to a dizzying 98.5% by the final week of the spring semester.
How? The answer is that Georgia State is a special sort of university, one that, for the past decade, has overturned received wisdom about the viability of lower-income, minority and first-generation students. It has proven that such students do not fail because they are not capable; they fail because, at most universities, the bureaucracy throws obstacles in their way instead of helping them fulfill their potential.
Georgia State is committed to helping them. Relying in part on big data, the university has learned to pinpoint problems and intervene early to redirect students heading down the wrong path. Sometimes that intervention involves rewriting schedules so students can take core requirements when they need them; sometimes it means redesigning an intro course so students can learn at their own pace in front of a computer instead of getting lost in a large lecture hall.
The university’s academic advisers don’t just sit back and wait for students to come in; they are there from day one to guide each of them and respond any time the university’s computer system registers an alert – because of a bad grade in an important class, say, or an unexplained absence, or a delay in registering for the next semester.
The upshot of these and many other innovations is that Georgia State has become both singularly successful – it has erased all achievement gaps based on race or class – and also singularly resilient. When the Covid-19 crisis erupted, Georgia State was able to rely on many of the systems it had set up over the past decade to steer its undergraduates away from disaster. Drop-out and failure rates this spring were down from the previous year. And while there wasn’t an actual graduation stage to cross, the number of students receiving a diploma was higher than ever.
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