Episode 103: Can You Find a College Like Georgia State?

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We are going to Georgia–well, not literally–in today’s episode to talk about a college that we did not include in our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53), but I now wish we had. I have to admit that I did not know virtually anything about the college we are going to talk about, and that’s why Marie and I say all the time that we learn something every day while navigating the ever-changing world of college. I think this episode will be eye-opening to many of you.

1. What’s in a Headline?

It all started when I read the following headline in a recent issue of The Hechinger Report: “At Georgia State, more black students graduate each year than at any U.S. college.” This excellent article, which was written by Nick Chiles and which also appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, takes a close look at how one college has changed the game for many students (and not just black students) who might have found it difficult–and perhaps unfairly difficult–to get into and succeed at other colleges. You all should really go read the whole article, because I can’t do it justice without reading it aloud to you in its entirety.

Mr. Chiles offers these statistics to make his case:

With its jumble of slate-gray concrete buildings mixed in with the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, Georgia State now graduates more black students with bachelor’s degrees every year than any other nonprofit school in the United States (1,777 in 2015). That stat includes the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Spelman, Howard and Florida A&M.

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent–nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.

And GSU increased those percentages while also increasing its number of black, Hispanic and low-income students by 10 percent. (quoted from the article)

Any way you look at it, those are some impressive statistics. This is not a new topic for USACollegeChat. We have talked in previous episodes about the shockingly low graduation rates in too many colleges, and we have talked about the scandalously low number of students of color in too many public universities. Both issues concern us. So, we are especially pleased to spotlight the work that Georgia State has been doing on both of these fronts.

2. How Georgia State Won

To what does Georgia State credit its success when so many other colleges have failed? Here is what Mr. Chiles said about that:

The centerpiece of GSU’s turnaround is the system it created and calls “GPS Advising.” Using computer algorithms, it closely tracks student performance, and GSU’s army of advisors monitors every student’s academic output on a daily basis. If a student’s performance veers off course just a bit, counselors receive an alert. They reach out to the student to find the source of the problem. According to GSU calculations, in 2014-15 the system generated more than 43,000 individual meetings between advisors and students.

In addition, knowing how frequently students drop out because they find themselves unable to cover tuition, GSU instituted a program that provides modest “retention grants” to students who are short of money. Last year it offered nearly 2,000.

Another program, called “Keep HOPE Alive,” helps students who have lost Georgia’s HOPE scholarship–which covers tuition costs at state institutions–re-qualify for the money by working to lift their GPAs back to the required 3.0. And for incoming [freshmen] it considers “at risk,” GSU offers an intensive seven-week summer prep program. (quoted from the article)

We are sure that these ideas cost Georgia State both administrative time and money. But look at the results. And haven’t we all known kids who had a scholarship and lost it when they underperformed during that important freshman year; Marie and I certainly have. Look at the support that Georgia State provides to its students who might otherwise have dropped out and suboptimized their entire futures: black kids, Hispanic kids, low-income kids, first-generation-to-college kids, and plenty of other kids who needed just a bit of help to win.

But, as Mr. Chiles goes on to say, it’s not just about these supports. It’s about the whole culture of Georgia State. Mr. Chiles continues his explanation:

In interviews at Georgia State, many black students said they feel they have the best of both worlds: the black peers, support staff and cultural environment they might find at an HBCU, but the resources and the diversity of a large state school.

On the weekends, GSU students said the campus feels even more like an HBCU. That’s because the number of black students who live on the downtown Atlanta campus is more than double the number of white students–2,794 black students this fall compared to 1,209 white students. Most of its 25,000 [undergraduate] students commute from nearby homes or apartments. (quoted from the article)

Well, there are lots of things to comment on here. First, we have talked in previous episodes about the nurturing and supportive environment of many HBCUs and how that sometimes makes all the difference to a student, especially to a student far from home. Georgia State seems to have that environment, even though it is not an HBCU. By the way, according to College Navigator (our favorite research tool for finding out important stuff about colleges), the undergraduate student body at Georgia State is 42 percent black/African American, 27 percent white, 12 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent everything else (Fall, 2015). Incidentally, Mr. Chiles notes that Georgia State has also recruited a large number of black administrators, advisors, and professors. According to a Georgia State administrator, 10 percent of Georgia State instructors are black–compared to only about 4 percent at other colleges that are not HBCUs.

Second, we want to point out the number of black students who live on Georgia State’s campus, which is largely a commuter campus. Being able to house those students gives them all of the advantages of college life that they otherwise would not get by living at home. We should note here that, according to College Navigator, 94 percent of Georgia State students are from Georgia (Fall, 2015). If you are not from Georgia, but you are impressed by what Georgia State has done, you might think about becoming part of the out-of-staters who make the trip to Atlanta (a group that might get bigger as more and more parents around the country look at what Georgia State has accomplished). We should also say that out-of-state tuition and fees will run more than $25,000 per year, so it’s not the cheapest option you are going to find, but we do believe that you might actually get what you pay for. We should also say that the deadline for applications for next fall is not until March 1, so you still have plenty of time to take a longer look.

And third, for those of you who don’t know it, Atlanta is a great city. In addition to the popular culture that is so evident there, it is home to great civic institutions, like the truly memorable National Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Carter Center (“Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”). By the way, you can go to Georgia State’s website and take the virtual campus tour, which will give you a good idea of what its piece of Atlanta looks like.

Let’s take one last look at Mr. Chiles’s well-researched article (again, please go read the whole piece, really):

Bernard McCrary, director of Georgia State’s Black Student Achievement office, said it helps that many of GSU’s black staff members were the first in their families to attend college, just as he was.

“I think when you have a lot of first-generation folk, these are people who understand what that struggle is like for students because they’ve gone through it or had family members go through it,” McCrary said. “They get it, they understand and will do everything in their power to make sure the students they service are successful.” (quoted from the article)

First, Georgia State has an Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. So, that says something about its commitment to serving its African and African-American student population. Second, the staffing of the university says something about its commitment to serving first-generation-to-college students. Giving these students role models–just like giving black students role models on its staff and faculty–is obviously intentional and should make parents of first-generation-to-college students rest a bit easier when sending their kids off to this university.

Although we were not necessarily trying to champion Georgia State in this episode, but rather the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put in place for students of color and first-generation-to-college students, I guess we have ended up championing Georgia State. So, while we are at it, let’s talk about one interesting thing we noticed on its website, and that is its methods for reviewing applications. Here is what the website says:

At Georgia State, we recognize that everyone is different. We give you options on how we evaluate your application because we know that every student is unique. Selecting how you would like to be reviewed as a freshman applicant is as simple as choosing which information to supply when you complete the application–skip the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections for the merit-based evaluation, or include an essay and letter(s) of recommendation to be evaluated holistically. It’s your choice; either way, we hope you choose Georgia State University.

The Merit Review is based purely on your academic merits as they align with Georgia State’s admissions requirements, including your high school transcript(s) and test scores. Choosing this method of review means that you have elected not to complete the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections of the admissions application, and that you will be assessed solely on your previous academic performance and scores. If you choose this review method, Georgia State will reach out to you if any other information is necessary to make our admissions decision.

The Holistic Review gives the Office of Undergraduate Admissions an enhanced picture of your abilities through the admissions application. For this option, please complete the essay and letter of recommendation sections of the Common Application, in addition to providing your transcript(s) and test scores. We strongly encourage the holistic review option if you would like to be considered for merit scholarships, if you are an international applicant, or if you’d simply like to share more about yourself as we make our admissions decisions.

Our decisions are based primarily on academic merit. The optional essay and letters of recommendation provide additional insight about you as an applicant as Georgia State selects its freshman class. (quoted from the website)

So, it’s your choice, kids. If you have the grades and test scores, you don’t have to bother with everything else. Interesting. By the way, according to College Navigator’s figures from Fall, 2015, about 57 percent of Georgia State applicants were admitted. Those admitted had SAT average scores in the low to mid-500s across all three subtests.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

So, let us say again that we were not necessarily trying to put the spotlight just on Georgia State University in this episode, but rather on the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put together to meet the needs of many of its own students of color and first-generation-to-college students.

With that in mind, parents, consider whether the colleges on your teenager’s list have similar academic and support services, programs, and even offices, especially if your teenager is a student of color or first-generation-to-college student. You should be able to find that information on a college’s website, but you can always call and ask. Finding a college that can nurture a teenager who needs a bit more support can make all the difference, as Georgia State has indeed proved.

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