Washington Monthly - September/October 2016 - 60

60 September/October 2016 we began to deal with those problems systematically," he says, "what we found is a lot of these achievement gaps just evaporated." DAVID LAUDE University of Texas at Austin UT Austin has long been the pride of the Texas public university system. But in 2011, Laude, a chemistry professor, was assigned to confront its quiet shame: about half of undergrads failed to graduate within four years. Students who stay longer rack up more debt, are less likely to graduate at all, and take up spots that could go to new students. Lowincome, minority, and first-generation students, who can least afford not to graduate on time, are the most at risk. Much of Laude's work has been focused on precisely that group. A system similar to Georgia State's predictive analytics flags the students at the greatest statistical risk of not finishing on time. They're placed in smaller first-year classes and given intensive faculty and peer support; some are awarded a $20,000 scholarship and on-campus internships. According to Laude, these efforts have helped bump at-risk students' percentage rate of first-year persistence-an obvious factor affecting timely graduation-from the low 80s David Laude to the low 90s. This year, the overall four-year graduation rate cracked 60 percent. Based on the numbers so far, the class of 2017, the first cohort to have entered school during the graduation effort, is on track to hit the program's goal of 70 percent. Laude says the most important innovation has been something difficult to pinpoint: a cultural shift. "This doesn't necessarily sound all that exciting, because you can't point to a particular program and say, 'That's the program that did it,' " he says. "It was, effectively, making jokes about staying on campus for more than four years go away. It stopped being part of what people said in graduation speeches or in orientation. And it was replaced by the steady drumbeat that a four-year graduation was in a student's best interest." CHARLES ISBELL Georgia Institute of Technology Much has been made of the fact that universities aren't producing enough STEM graduates to fill the growing number of technology-based jobs. At the same time, an advanced computer science degree from a traditional on-campus program is unrealistic for millions of would-be students. A top department like Georgia Tech's, for instance, only has the physical space to enroll a few hundred students a year. Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin a tight negative correlation between a low-income student population and graduation rates. Yet the opposite has happened, thanks to the university's "Student Success Collaborative," initiated in 2012 and headed by Renick. (Last year, we wrote about university president Mark Becker.) The initiative, which has become a model for other schools trying to improve student outcomes, encompasses more than a dozen different programs, including pre-freshman year summer sessions, redesigned introductory math curriculum, and micro-grants for students in need of a few hundred bucks to make it through the semester. The centerpiece is the enthusiastic embrace of predictive analytics, which means using historical data to determine the telltale signs of when students are in need of targeted interventions. A student who gets a C in an intro course in her intended major, for example, is statistically very unlikely to graduate. But traditionally, the only feedback she would get would be from the grade itself, which says: "You passed." Now, through predictive analytics, warning flags like that C grade trigger interventions in which advisers give students the information they need to get back on track. In the last year, for instance, the system has helped 2,000 students who picked the wrong course for their requirements switch into the right one. In the past, they wouldn't have known about their wasted time and money until after the semester was over. That can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out, since financial aid packages only cover so many credits. It's hard to overstate the project's impact. Georgia State now confers 30 percent more bachelor's degrees than it did five years ago. The overall graduation percentage has risen from the low 30s to the low 50s. Most remarkably, the racial achievement gap has vanished-in fact, black and Hispanic students now graduate at higher rates than white students, and Georgia State confers more bachelor's degrees to African Americans than any other school in the country, including historically black colleges. And, according to Renick, the reforms more than pay for themselves. Each percentage improvement in student retention brings in $3.1 million in gross revenue. That means there's no excuse for other universities not to do what Georgia State is doing. And many are. Examples include Delaware State University, a struggling public historically black college where chief operating officer Teresa Hardee has put together a leadership team that "completely understands that it's more financially advantageous for the university to retain students than to lose them," notes Daniel Greenstein of the Gates Foundation, which is supporting DSU's predictive analytics efforts. Renick describes predictive analytics as "simply a way to level the playing field." Students whose parents or siblings went to college have the benefit of an "invisible support system" that first-generation students lack, which helps them overcome obstacles that are frequently of the university's own making. Renick sees his efforts as fundamentally about removing those obstacles. "When

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