You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers. Hosted by the executive vice president and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd zipper.
Hello. I am Todd zipper, host of An Educated Guest. On today’s show, I speak with Dr. Tim Renick, founding executive director of Georgia State University’s National Institute for Student Success. Previously, Tim served as senior vice president for student success and professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State. Since 2008, he has led strategies, initiatives, and programs that have established Georgia State as an internationally recognized leader in student success and enrollment. Under Tim’s leadership, Georgia State produced one of the fastest growing graduation rates in the nation and eliminated achieving gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income. Tim has also been widely recognized for his entrepreneurship with Forbes naming him one of the world’s top 50 leaders in 2021.
The key takeaways from our discussion today. First, how Tim went from the founder of Georgia State’s Religious Studies Department to pioneer the Institute for Student Success with a systemic, proactive, data-informed, and technology-enhanced approach. Second, how Georgia State asked themselves one simple question, are we the problem? And leverage common sense strategies to dramatically improve outcomes for low-income and students of color. Third, how Georgia State uses proactive chat technology to reduce summer melt by over 30%. Fourth, the four service areas NISS offers universities to help them change their behavior and implement transformative change at scale to transform student success. Lastly, how Georgia State helps students connect their education to careers early and has ranked top in the country for social mobility by proactively leveraging data, learning communities, and meta majors.
Hello, Tim, thank you for being here today on An Educated Guest.
Dr. Tim Renick:
It’s a pleasure to be here, Todd.
I want to hear all about your work at Georgia State and the National Institute of Student Success, but first walk us through your story in higher education. I believe you got your start in higher ed as professor of religious studies. How did you go from a religious studies professor to a higher education entrepreneur who turned Georgia State into a premier public university and is now running the National Institute of Student Success?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, it was certainly not by planning, I’ll tell you that. I came to Georgia State right out of my PhD program at Princeton. I was the first hire in religion and I started the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State, thinking that was my trajectory in my career. What happened is a couple things. One is, as I was working in a small, struggling department trying to gain a foothold, I became increasingly interested in data because data was a way of showing impact, which otherwise was being ignored. We were tracking things early on, like the percent of our graduates in religious studies who were going on to premier graduate programs as compared to other departments across the university and so forth. That got me a reputation for, even though I was chairing a very small department, for being interested in issues that weren’t very commonly the topic of most department chairs.
And I began to get into a university administration. Initially, directing the university honors program, and then ultimately being assigned the task of the inaugural head of student success programs at Georgia State. Back in 2008, we had come to the conclusion that the student body we were increasingly enrolling, one that was becoming majority non-white, majority low-income, was not well served by the siloed systems we had in place at Georgia State. And we wanted to pull these support processes together in a much more coordinated fashion. And so in 2008, that became my full-time job, a world away from the world of religious studies.
But on the other hand, the background I had not only in starting a department, but in working with a lot of colleagues, the deans, other department chairs and so forth was instrumental in beginning to make the kind of changes that we were talking about. Because in many cases, these changes were painful. They required people to do things differently than the way they were accustomed to. And being a familiar face and hopefully not too threatening a face was certainly an advantage, but probably the biggest advantage was coming in with the data.
Yeah, that’s great. I know your story is so tied to Georgia State’s story, which has been this wonderful story of an urban state university that, like you said, a decade or two ago, was really struggling with enrollment, graduation rates, especially with Black and Hispanic students. I think there were barely over 20%. And you all have increased that significantly with this non-white population. Can you really walk us through Georgia State’s story a little bit more of when you arrived in more of this executive administrative role and of where it’s come to this day today?
Dr. Tim Renick:
To start that story, I think the challenge was at the time, and I think it’s still the challenge for the majority of universities across the U.S. is we had developed a university to serve students that were not the students we were enrolling. We had based our model upon the prevailing model at elite public and private institutions, which silently assumes that students come in with a lot of experiences that the average student at Georgia State just doesn’t possess any longer.
When I arrived at Georgia State in the late 1980s, right out of my PhD program, Georgia State was still a majority white institution. 75% of its students were white. This fall, we were 77% non-white. We’re not only an MSI, we’re one of the most diverse institutions in the country. We have one of the largest Black enrollments in the country and so forth. When I arrived in the late 1980s, under a third of our students were low-income. Now, it’s closer to two thirds of our students qualify as low-income. And we were still using the same models and the same systems that we had used not only 20 years before, but 30 and 40 years before. Systems that we had largely borrowed from other public and private institutions that have a different student profile.
So I think what we began to do in 2008 is really systematically look at, what are the needs of the students we enroll and how can we serve them in a more proactive and systematic fashion? What I find as we work with other institutions, and I think what was true of Georgia State 10, 12, 15 years ago, is that we did most things that we needed to do. We just did them at too small a scale and too passively.
So we had all the right resources in place. If you really had a financial aid problem, there was somebody who could probably solve it for you, but you had to find who that person was and we wouldn’t make it easy for you. If you really were struggling academically, there was tutoring, there was resources available, but good luck finding it at the time of day when given your work schedule you are available and so forth. And what we began to say is, what would a system look like that didn’t require our mostly first generation, low-income student body to first self-diagnose their own problems, then kind of figure out this huge bureaucracy of Georgia State to determine where some help could be found and then carve out in their busy schedules, and 80% of Georgia State students are working, in their busy schedules, a time to access that support that is out there and available? What would it look like if we took responsibility for defining and designing and determining which students needed help at which point and proactively deliver that support to them?
That was the kind of germ of a thought that we began to develop, and it iterated itself in all kinds of different ways. In academic advising, we moved from a model where largely advisors sat in offices, waiting for students to make appointments with them to a system now where we have every year, over 100,000 predictive analytics based alerts going out that says, “Here’s a student who needs your help today, reach out to that student.” And the advisors are getting that information every morning when they come into the office. It’s kind of flipped the tables with regard to how we deliver the kind of services we’ve always known need to be delivered at the college level, but we’re doing it in a way that is data-informed, technology-enhanced, systematic, and proactive.
Yeah, I think it’s a great combination of taking this very customer, student-centric approach, kind of flipping it on its head, meeting that student where they are, and then bringing really good process and really good data to help guide along that journey.
Let’s stick with this theme around empowering all these new changes by using data. Many of us can gather data, how do you use it at scale? This is what I’m trying to get out here. I was listening to one of your speeches at the New York Times Higher Ed Forum, and you talked about this early alert system, and I think you just alluded to where you’ve had 52,000 proactive one-on-one interventions of advisors reaching out to students. How do you really translate gathering all this data into executing around behavior at the institution to drive better outcomes, better retention, better graduation rates, better job, place, and race, et cetera? How are you thinking about that as the Georgia State side of the house?
Dr. Tim Renick:
The reality, it really is just common sense advice that we’re delivering to students at scale. It looks fancy, it sounds complicated, but at heart, that’s what it is. What we actually did, this is starting now, over 10 years ago, is begin looking at big data sets of our students to determine what were the early warning signs of students who were destined to drop out, what was happening to the students who ended up dropping out 6, 12, 18 months before they did so. The logic being, if you can identify those early warning signs, which of course become the early alerts, then you can potentially reach out to the student at that moment and prevent them 6 or 12 or 18 months later from actually dropping out. And so it was a statistical project, what identifiable behaviors could we locate that have a statistically significant ability to predict whether a student is going to drop or flunk out of the university?
The reality is we found hundreds of them. In fact, 800 of them. And what we’ve just done is operationalize a system where when we update our data every night, we’re looking for any of those 800 behaviors. And if one is identified, the academic advisor assigned to the student the next morning is given that alert and told there is a problem that you need to help the student you are responsible for work through and hopefully resolve. Now, that all sounds really intimidating until you look at the details. The details of what we’re tracking is in many cases, very commonsensical. We’re looking at registration records. There are certain courses a chemistry major needs to take in a particular order to get a chemistry degree, a bachelor’s degree in four years.
In the past, we were letting students sign up willy-nilly. They would, on their own, be asked to pick the right courses. And given the student body we enroll, but given most student bodies, you’d have a lot of students make mistakes. They would sign up for the chem sequence for non-STEM majors, or they would sign up for the wrong math course or they’d sign up for the math course in the wrong order and so forth. And those mistakes would be allowed to happen. Now, one of the alerts that goes off during registration is if a student signs up for a course that’s not on their map, the advisor gets a notice and there’s some intervention to get the student in the right course before the semester begins.
We found in those big data sets that we began collecting 10 years ago, the first grade a student gets in their major is highly predictive of their chances of graduating on time. These are actual Georgia State data, but if you’re a political science major and get an A or B in your first political science course, you’re graduating on time from Georgia State at about a 75% clip, which is a great rate for us. If you get a C in that first class as a political science major, you’re graduating on time from Georgia State at a 25% clip. But what had we done historically with those C students in political science? Absolutely nothing. Well, for generations, we just passed them on to upper level coursework where the added writing and reading or whatever the additional requirements were, would lead to the data now tells us 75% of these students dropping out with no degree. Well, that’s insane to sit back and watch 75% of the students struggle when you’ve got that data point in your possession right now.
So now we don’t sit passively by, we reach out to those students immediately. When that first grade is registered, they’ve got to see, let’s sit down and talk to them. Maybe there are reading and writing issues they’re facing, maybe they’re working 40 hours a week, but why don’t we diagnose the problem now and try to offer assistance rather than waiting for 75% of the students to drop or flunk out of the university. Simple examples.
We’re tracking now via our learning management platforms, the so-called LMSs, whether students are logging onto their classes. If a student paid for a course and if we did our job and got them into the right course during the registration period, then obviously they should be engaged in the class. If they’re not logging onto the LMS and the course requires them to do so, let’s reach out now. We’re reaching out as early as three days into the new semester to see what’s going on with the students. Often, after three days, the problem is not an academic one. It’s the students having technology issues, the students having personal issues, the students having financial issues. They’ve lost a job, they’re going through a breakup and so forth. Let’s look at those issues proactively and try to get the student help before it leads to them dropping out.
The interesting thing about these examples, the ones I’ve just cited, registering for the right course, doing well in the first course you take in your academic major, attending the class that you’re signed up for. These are just commonsensical things that we should be, in higher ed, monitoring students for and offering support. In fact, when I sometimes talk about what Georgia State is doing to nonacademic audiences, their first response is, “Weren’t you doing those things all along? Like, weren’t you making sure that students are performing well and they’re attending the class and so forth?” And the sad answer is for 90 plus percent of American colleges and universities, no, we haven’t been doing that. And so just by systematically beginning to do that, we’ve seen these transformative results.
And as you alluded to, our Black graduation rates were around 22%-23%. They’ve almost tripled now over the last 10-12 years at Georgia State. Our Hispanic graduation rates have tripled. Our white graduation rates have gone up as well. But interestingly, these kind of systematic approaches, although they’re not based on race, ethnicity at all, they’re blind with regard to the student’s demographic details. We’re just reaching out to the students who are not attending their class or underperform in the first grade they get in their major and so forth. But by doing so systematically, we found again and again, we disproportionately benefit students from so-called underserved backgrounds. So it’s our low-income, our first generation, our minoritized students who benefit the most from this sort of systematic approach.
I mean, look, 100% of students that enroll in school plan to graduate, right? And the fact that that doesn’t happen is always going to be a problem. This whole thing you’re talking about, it reminds me of the analogy of a pilot that gets coordinates to its destination from New York to Los Angeles. And 100% of the time, they have to tweak their plan as they’re learning about the winds and other issues that are going on and other traffic patterns. I think it’s a similar thing that you’re talking about here, is that, okay, so they 100% plan to graduate, and yet of course, all these factors are coming at them that sort of take them off course, and you guys built a system at scale to keep them on course. I think that’s absolutely fantastic.
Before we dive into how you’re really have taken these solutions at Georgia State and thinking about it more broadly with the NISS, I want to talk a little bit about the postsecondary enrollment situation that we’re facing today. Recently, the National Student Clearinghouse, as of the spring 2022 term, that’s January, mostly, we’ve lost almost 1.3 million learners since really the start of the pandemic. Of course, there’s a story before that, which is that for 10 years now, postsecondary enrollments have been on this slight decline. And so we also have this issue where another data point that came out where about 39 million students with some college. That’s actually up from 36 million that’s been reported on since 2019. So help us sort of diagnose from your perspective what’s going on here. We know that postsecondary education is needed more than ever, right? There’s the skills gap. There’s tons of jobs that are available even today in slight recessionary pressure that we’re feeling. What’s going on here? Where are all the students going?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, it’s a great question, Todd. I think to talk from the Metro Atlanta context, just as one example, that our chamber of commerce and our economic predictions for the future say that about 75% to 80% of the permanent jobs being created in Metro Atlanta will require some kind of postsecondary credential. And yet, as you point out, the pipeline of students entering college has gone down considerably. It was already shaky before the pandemic. There have been huge drops since the pandemic as well. I think that part of the problem is on us in higher education that we have one, made the process of applying to and getting admitted to college far too complicated, too bureaucratic. We lose too many students along that pathway. Just one data point there to kind of affirm how big a loss it is. The bureaucratic obstacles that we’ve created, how big a loss they create as far as college enrollment is concerned, is Georgia State was having huge troubles with what is called summer melt.
Summer melt is the phenomenon of students who not only get admitted to your institution, but confirm their intent to enroll. In most cases, they register for classes, put down deposits, but they never show up for classes when they begin. And so five, six years ago, we began analyzing what’s happening to these students. We were losing about 20% of our incoming class every semester to this problem of melt. They would be admissible, they would apply, they would get accepted, they would say they’re coming, they would take steps to show they intend to come, but they would never take a single day of classes. The response we came up with as we analyzed where the problems were coming is that Georgia State was the problem. We had created all these bureaucratic hoops, things that students need to do to be ready to begin taking classes. Not only applying for financial aid and submitting transcripts, but immunization requirements and deposits and participating in different types of orientation modules and so forth.
As we looked at the data for each of those bureaucratic steps, what we found, not surprisingly, but disturbingly is that each one of those steps eliminated a subset of the incoming class. So they had completed all the steps up until turning in their transcript or turning in their immunization records and so forth. And then once they didn’t complete that step, they were gone. The rest of the process never continued because they didn’t make it through that one process. And more disturbingly, we found that each one of those bureaucratic steps disproportionally impacted negatively students from underserved backgrounds. So we were in effect creating equity gaps before even the first day of college classes by disproportionally weeding out students who were low-income, first generation, minoritized and so forth.
What is encouraging here is though that we have now, as we did with regard to the proactive advising, created some technology and data-enhanced ways of serving the students before they enroll at Georgia State. We now have a chatbot. It’s AI enhanced. It’s able to answer thousands of questions to students 24/7. Students just go onto the texting platform on their smart device, they can put any question in, the AI doesn’t write the answers to the questions, the AI uses algorithms to take the question and determine the right answer that’s already in the knowledge base and deliver it to the students. We launched this specifically, initially just for incoming students because they were hard to reach in that time between graduating from high school and start in college. They’re no longer with their high school teachers and counselors, they’re not yet with us. So we figure this texting platform would be great.
The first three months we had this texting platform open just for our incoming students, we had 180,000 exchanges with the students, questions answered. We found when we looked at the data, they were completing the fast higher rates. They were resolving issues like getting their transcripts and immunization records in higher rates. And interestingly, the use of the chatbot heavier at 12:00 midnight than 9:00 in the morning. So they were doing this because many of our students, as I said, are working students at odd hours, when many of our offices, support offices are closed down. So we made this change, a relatively simple service that we added for incoming students. Now, you have this texting platform available and we’ve reduced summer melt at Georgia State by more than 30%. So where was the problem there? Was the problem the students or was the problem the bureaucracy that we’ve set up and the failure we were guilty of with regard to helping students navigate it?
So I think part of the problem that you’re talking about with regard to students not making it to college is on higher education. Part of it is clearly economic. At Georgia State, our biggest drop in enrollment over the last two years by far has been for our students on our community college campuses, our associate degree-seeking students. Part of the reason why is unemployment in Atlanta right now is under 3%, and many minimum wage jobs that we’re paying $12 and $14 two years ago are now paying $20. If you are in that workforce right now and have recently received a significant raise, you are not necessarily inclined to go to college. Historically, we found that enrollments at two-year institutions increase during hard economic times. Now, we’re in a kind of recession of sorts, but it’s not a recession that has led to high unemployment.
The challenge that we see is a communication one. Because for many of these students, the immediate best path is to take that increase from a $12 an hour job to a $20 an hour job. But we all know the future for some of those students, not all of them, is not particularly promising as far as turning that $20 an hour job into a $40 an hour job unless they get additional credentials. So a part of what we need to do is continue to explain the value proposition of higher education, and that’s become increasingly difficult in a fraught political context.
Yeah, I think you said this several times now so I just want to underscore it, asking yourself as the institution, where are we the problem? I think if everyone was doing that, this idea of the value prop would really start to improve. And then I think, frankly, reverse these enrollment trends.
I want to dig into a little bit the rise of the alternative credential provider. Because to me, these are big names, whether it’s the Googles of the world that are coming in and talking about their digital credential type programs that they’re offering in project management or something like that, or these mega platforms that might be in partnership with universities, like the Courseras of the world. These are programs that are either free or extremely low cost, and they seem to all be ultimately trying to get at this market that we’re talking about here, postsecondary, upskilling and reskilling that’s ultimately needed. And we know we’re going to need hundreds of millions of people upskilled, reskilled in the course of the next decade or so to meet the changing job market.
So how can higher ed, the traditional higher ed sector tap into this? Because right now, clearly something is not working. Now, it could be this countercyclical aspect we’re in right now, as you mentioned, low unemployment, salaries rising, et cetera, but we know they’re not going to probably have the skills for that stable… Like you said, Atlanta, 75% of those jobs you’re going to need some kind of that credential. So what can higher ed do more here?
Dr. Tim Renick:
It is a good question. A couple observations. One is I do support and follow those alternate models and pathways. They are promising in some ways, but I think we have to begin to hold them to the same standards that we hold higher education. Georgia State has struggled, but successfully improved its graduation rate by about 70%. We’re still only graduating on time about 60% of our students. And then there’s another, almost 20% who transfer within that same period of time and graduate from another institution. So there, roughly the success rate is about 80%. We talk about these alternate pathways as being a much better alternative potentially for certain students. We do need to look at what percent of students are successful. Not only through things like Coursera, but through coding programs and through some of these alternate credentialing and so forth.
Secondly, we have to then ask the larger question. Over time, what happens to these individuals? Are they served well by the kind of much more focused and in some senses, more limited training that they receive? More limited, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, only by the fact that most of these programs are much shorter in length and so forth.
What we found at Georgia State is, especially for our first generation and low-income students, maybe the biggest part, the biggest benefit that they gain from pursuing an associate’s and then a bachelor’s degree is the experience, the social experience of being a college student for four or so years. We have resisted the urge, which might be promoted for financial reasons at Georgia State to offer a lot of fully online programs to our incoming first year students. Because most of our first year students need the experience of being in a college setting, interacting with others, interacting face to face with instructors, but just as importantly, with each other. Being professionalized and socialized in that context. And so what we don’t want to do is create another system for inequities in higher education by creating pathways that work especially well for those students who are already able to have the discipline and the focus to succeed in online platforms and in those specific settings.
Just up the street a bit at Georgia Tech, and again, not a criticism at all, but they’re offering a relatively short-term set of master’s programs now in highly technical fields and their enrollment growth at Georgia Tech over the last five or six years has been almost 100% based upon more master students enrolled in these entirely online programs. It’s fantastic in many ways because it’s providing students who need a credential and need the content material in specialized technical fields to be able to get that material in a short period of time. But the flip side of it is the students they’re primarily serving are very tech savvy, very accomplished people from across the globe who are able to succeed in that kind of setting, which requires a lot of self discipline and it requires a lot of knowhow going in. Those are not the students we serve predominantly at Georgia State. They’re certainly not the students we serve as they first matriculate and enroll.
And so I think as we think about those alternate pathways, we also need to, as Georgia State has tried to do intentionally over the last decade, think about the students we most need to serve. And the students we most need to serve in order to deal with the inequities across the U.S. are students whose families are low-income, students who have not previously gone and graduated from college, students from minoritized backgrounds. Those are often not the students who most readily succeed through these alternate platforms.
Yeah, I’m very aligned with that. Online education certainly can be very white glove, very high touch. But these platforms right now are largely about scale and it’s really based on a self-directed process that to increase access, you’re probably going to struggle in completion, which is ultimately what it’s about. You know, gaining the knowledge, the mastery so you can change your career trajectory.
On that note in talking about outcomes, I want to get into student outcomes. I know we’ve talked a lot about that. So I want to just put some of these data points, because I’ve heard you talk about that you’ve also seen, practically speaking, increase in revenue from this too, which is interesting because you could view that way that you increase, I think you said one percentage point of retention and that’s about $3 million of revenue increase. So that itself should motivate highly universities to go through these, frankly, probably difficult changes at times. How do you think about student outcomes? How do you convince others to get on the ball that this is also in the best interest of… the financial interest of the university as well?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the arguments for why we need to, as institutions, ask these questions about how we’re the problem and then try to pursue systematic and scaled solutions are multifaceted. There are more than one reason. I mean, what motivated me originally was the moral argument, and I still think that that is the prevailing one for most of my colleagues across higher ed. I taught religious ethics, I was chair of a very small department where I got to know our students exceedingly well. Some students I would see in the classroom three or four times over the course of their academic careers. What I saw is that the system was unjust in a very basic way, which is you could have students of equal talent, some of who graduated and some who didn’t because of the second group getting stuck in the bureaucracy. They didn’t turn in a form on time, their aid was denied, they missed a deadline and so forth. And just a little mistake, a really small slip up could be the difference between a student getting a college degree or not.
And so I think we have a moral obligation to try to minimize the chances that students who are paying lots of money and have their futures on the line will have their hopes dashed by something that we’re culpable of, by some failing of our institution. That’s kind of motivates me on a day to day basis. We’re far from perfect, far from perfect, but each day we try to reduce the number of instances where a student is going to likely drop out because of something we’ve done that fails them.
But I think as you’re alluding to, there are some really other very striking arguments out there. Across the U.S., about 48 of the 50 states have what are shaky or declining demographics with regard to high school graduates and college-ready students. So the pool of students completing high school and being ready to enroll in college is declining nationally. In some regions, dramatically. So the NISS has recently worked with a set of institutions in Michigan. Some of the Midwestern states, some of the New England states, the projections are 20%, 30% declines in college-ready students over the next generation. So if you’re a president sitting at one of those institutions or this chief financial officer, you could look at this equation morally yes, but also as a fiscal issue of saying, “How do we survive?” We cannot rely on graduating 30% of our students and watching 70% of them walk any longer because that’s watching 70% of our revenues walk.
In the past, we might turn around and say, “Okay, well, let’s just admit another group of students who will only retain and graduate at a 30% rate.” But if there are fewer of those students to go around, the best path forward is to say, “Let’s not hold onto 30% of our students, let’s hold onto 40% or 50% or 60%.” And those kind of increases are not beyond the pale. A number of institutions in addition to Georgia State have been able to do that using some of the approaches we’ve been discussing. So that’s genuine fiscal security that comes to these campuses by holding onto the students whose revenues otherwise are walking away. And it’s jobs for faculty and staff, it’s the ability to implement and sustain programs and so forth.
But I think there’s a third argument as well. So we’ve got the moral argument, we’ve got a fiscal argument. There’s also a political argument here, that we live in politically fraught times, as I’ve already mentioned, but in most ways, higher education has been a unifying force. I mean, the reality is if you look at things like data sets from the Pew Research Center, the average bachelor’s graduate holder over the course of their entire career will earn anywhere from 900,000 to a million dollars, more than the individual who just has a high school diploma. It’s true that they’ll contribute more to the tax base, they’ll bring more to the economies, but there are also quality of life issues. The bachelor’s holders, by national data sets, will be more likely to have geographic mobility, will have better access to healthcare, will have longer life expectancies. Their children will have better educational opportunities, their children will have better access to healthcare.
So if what we want to do is move our communities in a positive way and so forth, that one of the few kind of proven ways of doing so is through higher education. That communities that have more people with postsecondary degrees have better economic basis, have longer life expectancy, have better healthcare opportunities, have better educational opportunities and so forth. So even if you don’t lead with the moral argument, there are other reasons why these are not only the right things to do, but they’re the right things to do right now.
You mentioned NISS and you’ve been sort of reflecting on more of the macro issues and how we can solve them. Tell us why you started it.
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah. So over the five years prior to the pandemic, Georgia State, which was increasingly getting noted for our use of chatbot and predictive analytics and micro grants and meta-majors, and all this. We had over 500 campuses send teams to visit us and to learn about what we’re doing. I think at last count, it’s about 48 of the 50 states have sent some campus team to visit us, but we’ve also had teams visit from New Zealand and South Africa and Korea and so forth. It was nice to be able to share our learning, but the reality was that we weren’t able to deliver the kind of support these campuses needed to actually make substantive changes. I’m very high on the prospect of using some of these technologies and these data sets in order to deliver personalized services to students at scale, but the reality is the knowhow about how to do this is right now across the U.S. still very limited.
We founded the NISS, the National Institute for Student Success about 18 months ago in order to try to address this particular deficiency. Could we not only welcome campuses to learn about what we’re doing, but provide them the kind of services they need over an extended period of time to actually implement the changes to make transformative differences in student outcomes? What the NISS is doing is delivering a suite of services to campuses that come to us and that are the right fit. In some cases, we’re working with them for a few months, in some cases up to two years or more to help them understand these new approaches to student success and help them implement them.
Yeah. So walk us through a potential client, even though it’s a not-for-profit. How does that work? Do you have tools that you’re giving them? Are you a technology company? Is it a consulting arrangement where you’re saying, “Hey, here’s our playbook and let’s look at what you are as a university, and we’ll kind of help you build that playbook”? Sort of walk us through the different services that you have and how this plays out.
Dr. Tim Renick:
Sure. I can mention four primary services that we offer. Some of them are for fee, but we are a nonprofit so these fees are greatly reduced. They’re subsidized by a lot of philanthropic and other sources. But we offer an Accelerator. It’s a website on steroids in effect that provides the knowhow and the practical steps for campuses to implement some of these programs. So if you’re interested, not just in a broad category of proactive advising, but specific components of it, how do you set up early alerts? How do you create transition advisors or graduation counselors? How do you organize a cross-functional advising committee on your campus? The Accelerator will provide you some tools that can show you what others have done and how they’ve done it.
For some campuses, that’s enough. And we’ve worked with some campuses. We have a signature program, Panther Retention Grants, a micro grant program that offers last dollars to especially seniors who are running out of aid and helps them stay enrolled and graduate. And University of Central Florida a couple years ago said, “We’ve got a similar problem. Some of our seniors are dropping out because they’re running out of aid for their programs. How do you do it?” And we had a couple quick conversations, shared some documents, and they launched a very successful version of that program.
But for many campuses, that’s not enough. For many campuses, one, they lack the diagnostic abilities to really pinpoint where their problems are, and then they lack the campus data and technology and other knowhow in order to implement the changes. So what the NISS offers is a diagnostic. This is a for-fee service, but it’s about a four-month process where we work with campuses. We look at 20 years of their data, starting with their iPads, their federal data sets, but then looking at internal data. We survey campus leaders and stakeholders who are involved in student success offices. We conduct one-on-one interviews and group interviews to gain greater highlights. And what all that culminates in after several months is a diagnostic and playbook about a 40-page document that outlines where we think the problems are for this specific campus.
I’ve mentioned some examples at Georgia State where we had problems, for instance, with summer melt, with our incoming students not making it to the first day of classes and so forth. Those summer melt problems are typical of some schools but not others. And so what we do is try to identify what specific problems are you facing as an institution. And then that same document, the playbook part of it, offers a set of structured recommendations with implementation steps for what needs to be done to address the problems that were identified. And then for campuses that want even more support after they’ve gone through the diagnostic and we’re working with a number of them right now, is there is coaching support, either as cohorts.
So we work with groups of campuses together that may be from a similar region or share certain characteristics in common. We’re currently working with a group of public HBCUs as a cohort. We’re also working with a group of community colleges in a specific state as a cohort. And they go through that implementation process together, not only learning from our experts at the NISS in Georgia State, but learning from each other as they implement these changes, like introducing a predictive analytics system for their advising and so forth.
And then a fourth option is individualized coaching where a campus will come to us, and we’re doing this now with Midwestern University says, “We’ve got specific problems in one area,” they’re particularly concerned about the interface between data and their advising units and so forth, “and we would help with that specific problem.” So we’re working with them in that regard. The idea is by the end of these engagements to have not the client or colleagues learn something new, but do something different. I mean, that is the ultimate goal. It’s great if they understand better how AI and chatbot work. It’s great if they understand predictive analytics and micro grants and meta-majors, fine, but what we’re designed and committed to doing at the NISS is getting higher ed institutions to change their behavior in scaled and significant fashion to serve students better.
That’s great. I also recently read, still involving Georgia State, that using a chatbot to keep students connected showed improvement in grades and retention rates. We’ve been talking a lot about the retention and graduation rates, but I think this is something to do within the course itself and the learning management system, which is kind of a next level use of these chatbots. You talked about more of the administrative side. Can you kind of jump into that and sort of tell us, because this seems like a pretty novel concept here that could be again, scaled throughout all of NISS’s clients in the market writ large.
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, I think you’re right there, Todd. The reality is six years ago, just around this time, when we launched our AI enhanced chatbot for student success support, we were one of the few schools in the country that had one of those platforms. Now, there are hundreds of schools that are using chatbot technology in some capacity. For the most part, the chatbots are being dedicated to help students navigate administrative functions. We do that at Georgia State and think that’s fantastic. Not only do our incoming students have access to the chatbot, all our enrolled students now have access to the chatbot to help them with the FAFSA, to help them with registration, to help them find tutoring support and all those sorts of things. By independent evaluations, it has improved retention, it has increased the number of students completing those administrative tasks.
But what we did last fall was a new iteration. Now that all Georgia State students have this chatbot in their possession and are already using it, most of them on a very regular basis, almost daily basis, what would happen if we began to integrate the content of the chatbot into the specific academic courses that the student has taken? So we took our largest course at Georgia State. It’s a course in American government, about 8,000 students enroll in the class every academic year. What we did is piloted some online sections, enrolling over 500 students where we worked with the instructor to week by week weave in content for the course in the chatbot platform.
So we would send nudges to the student, letting them know when an assignment was coming up or when a supplemental instruction section was available. We would allow the students to ask questions 24/7. You know, “I’m in chapter three and struggling with this particular issue.” And we work with the instructor to build out the knowledge base so that it would have answers to those questions already populated, so the students could get those answers and so forth. We nudge the students before the midterm. We gave them a couple sample questions the week before and said, “If you can answer these questions, you’re probably pretty good as far as your preparation. If not, maybe you need to go to some of these study sessions and so forth.”.
So it was relatively light touch. It was certainly not very expensive. It took some human capital to work with the instructor in the course, but it didn’t take a lot of money or technology costs because all these students already had the chatbot. So what happened with the final grades in that course? We had an independent evaluator, Lindsay Page of Brown University run a randomized control trial with those 500 students to see the results. The final grades in that course for the students on the chatbot were seven points higher than for the students not on the chatbot. If you were a first generation student on the chatbot, your final grade was 11 points higher. We’re talking about an entire letter grade higher by providing that kind of support and impact for the students on a weekly basis.
So one of the commitments of the NISS is to provide to our colleagues and our clients evidence-based approaches. And what we’re committed to do in the NISS, and the NISS was a sponsor of the research that resulted in this particular study that we’re talking about in the government course, committed to is extending our understanding of what really works from a data perspective.
What’s it going to take to scale that technology and that solution you’ve built here, the team has built to not just the university overall, but many other partners that you’re working with at NISS?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, absolutely so. The idea is, let’s learn what works and then the next iteration of clients that come to us as we go through the diagnostic and implementation processes with them, then we’re sharing this research as well. In fact, we have some grants already where we’re not only sharing the research we’ve done at Georgia State, but including our partner campuses in the research to make it even stronger and broader in its initial iterations.
Great. One of the areas we’re focused on in the podcast at Wiley is this idea we call, just career-connected education. We’re talking a lot about outcomes here, through the course, through the program, graduation, et cetera, but also making sure people get the jobs that they’re hoping to get at or the promotions. I know at Georgia State you’ve got work going on there as well. This might be outside of the purview of NISS, but I know you’ve gotten some funding for this College To Career program, which I think helps learners better demonstrate their skills to employers with the skills briefcase. Can you unpack this initiative and sort of what the team is hoping to do with it?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah. It’s very much a product of the same mindset of trying to scale proactive support for our students and flip the model. Career services like academic advising was often quite passive where the offices would wait for the students to come to them. When we ran our data, it didn’t surprise anybody the most likely time, six, seven years ago, where a Georgia State student would first visit career services was in their final semester of enrollment. Well, if you’re enrolling mostly first generation students, that’s far too late. You need a whole set of experiences for these students to have. So what we’ve done with College To Career is leverage both data and programming to deliver career support for students from the time they first matriculate at Georgia State.
They’re assigned in their first semester to meta-majors, where they learn about broad academic and career fields like STEM and business and health professions. We put them in a learning community so that they can talk to other students about these area of interests. We are exposing them to live job data with regard to Georgia State’s actual graduates. So one of the reasons we find students often change majors later in their academic careers is because they discover that they want to do something other than what that career will allow them to do. Why don’t we get more proactive about sharing with students the link between what the majors are and what career pathways are available from the front end?
So we’re now scraping the internet to find our Georgia State alums on websites like LinkedIn, but every other professional website and we’re aggregating and disaggregating the data. So that if you’re a current political science major at Georgia State, you can actually see what former political science majors at Georgia State are doing. What’s their average salary, what company are they most likely to work for, what kind of job titles do they have, what part of the country or the state are they working in and so forth. That’s all part of the advising students get from the first semester as they’re picking majors so they can make a more informed choice.
We set up a simple micro grant program. If a faculty member teaches an introduction to course at Georgia State, introduction to history, to sociology, to chemistry and so forth, we give them a small stipend if they create one graded assignment in the course that gets the students to think about the career competencies they’re learning in the class. So what am I doing in chemistry or history that’s going to be important to an employer or to a graduate school after I complete my associate or bachelor’s degrees? What we’re trying to do is structure a set of experiences, which ultimately will include for the student internships by the junior year and so forth that scale the kind of thinking that students need to do to be better equipped, to be competitive in the job market.
We’ve been quite successful. Georgia State ranks among the top schools in the country with regard to social mobility, taking students who enter college from low-income backgrounds and moving them to the upper half of Americans by annual household income after graduation. Georgia State is typically in the top 1% of universities as far as that metric is concerned.
We’re coming up on the end here. You’ve had an incredible decade or so really doing this at one remarkable institution in an amazing city demographic in Atlanta, mostly in Georgia. How are you thinking about the next 10 years in terms of the impact that yourself, NISS hopeful to have on the market?
Dr. Tim Renick:
I think that I’m very optimistic about the ability for these approaches to take hold and to have similar impacts elsewhere. The reality is Georgia State is not the only institution that has scaled these approaches. Both through our collaboration with other schools and through their learning about these approaches independently and implementing them, we’ve seen transformative outcomes at other schools. Look at University of Texas San Antonio and the fact that they’ve basically doubled their graduation rates with some of these very similar approaches. Towson University outside of Baltimore, Florida International in the Miami area, all these schools are taking the same approach of saying we are so large, we will not be able to deliver personalized services to students by the old traditional model of just hiring up more and more staff members. But what we can do is leverage predictive analytics, AI, chatbots, big data sets, and so forth to really personalize the kind of attention our students receive.
We all have always known that personalized attention works in higher education. Otherwise, we wouldn’t say that those private secondary schools, high schools with the small student to teacher ratios are the most desirable or that the elite colleges are more desirable. We know that that is an important cornerstone of effective education, but now we have the ability to deliver some of these personalized services, even at not particularly well resourced four-year public institutions like Georgia State, but also UT San Antonio or FIU or Towson and so forth. And these approaches are making a transformative difference.
Yeah. Before we close, are there any new technologies? I mean, you talk about these chatbots, you talk about use of big data. Is there anything that’s sort of peaking your attention here, sort of new solutions that you’re hoping to test out at Georgia State and then of course, with your other clients at NISS?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah. There are always iterations, Todd, on what we’re doing. And so I will say that one of the things I’m excited about as the next iteration of our chatbot is not only bringing it into the classroom, but also having it know more about a student when the student poses a question. So the reality is that from a data perspective, what the question coming in is coming in from a particular phone number. We know a lot about that student via the phone number. We know, for instance, which of our six campuses that student is located on. We know what major that student is pursuing. We know whether they’re living in university housing or living off campus, and dozens of other things. Can we take the next level and customize the personalized support by using that kind of data and being able to deliver much more personalized messages to the students?
I alluded to quickly the web scraping technologies. It’s been a huge challenge for not only Georgia State, but other like institutions to track outcomes for our graduates because our graduates are not particularly likely to respond to surveys. The last time we did a comprehensive survey of our alums asking them about career and so forth, we got about a 3% response rate. So look at the ability out there now, knowing that almost everybody who is in a working life has some kind of web footprint out there to use that to collect data about what’s happening with our students, and using it to their benefit. Again, this is not an attempt, although I know we can and will be accused of invading privacy. This is an attempt to say, we know that big for profit companies are using these kind of approaches to sell things to students, to deliver products at higher rates and so forth. Why don’t we use some of these same techniques to deliver to students something that is important to the quality of their life and that they have already raised their hand and said, “I want,” which is a college degree?
They’re paying a lot of money for it. If these kind of approaches can help us understand better the career trajectories and the opportunities our students have, or identify earlier on the struggles they’re having in their academic pursuits and reach out proactively to help them, or understand early on a financial crisis the student is facing and reach out proactively to give them financial support, why shouldn’t we be using these techniques for the benefits of the students rather than to profit from them?
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And a lot of those insights are used to market to those families and students, right? Because this big data, these customized offerings based on your profile. Obviously, we’ve all read that story arc with sort of the Facebooks of the world and whatnot, to apply that to helping students on their journey to better education, better graduation, better jobs, I think is almost feeling inspiring and inevitable after this conversation, Tim, that I’m having today. Because you’re putting it to work one step at a time, one problem at a time that you’re solving for, and then moving on the next. So looking forward to see how that next decade plays out. Last final question for you, and I ask this of all my guests, part of what we love about education is that we all have learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you and how has that person helped you in your life?
Dr. Tim Renick:
Yeah, it’s a great question. I came from fairly modest backgrounds. My dad was career military and I ended up very fortunately going to Dartmouth as an undergrad on the equivalent of work study at the time working jobs and so forth.
I’ll say that a couple of my professors at Dartmouth changed my outlook about what we deserve to deliver to students. They ironically delivered it in the context, which is completely unrealistic at a place like Georgia State as far as very small class sizes and all those kind of resources and so forth. But Ron Green, Robert Odine, a couple of these professors who took me under the wing, showed me the difference that that kind of nurturing and personalized attention could provide.
And part of my challenge at Georgia State, not just since I’ve been dealing with student success, but when I first got here and started founding the Department of Religious Studies was how can you in this big state university, we enroll 54,000 students with all this diversity and all these challenges that students face on a day to day basis, deliver a model of support that’s comparable to that in any sort of way? The struggle is far from complete, but that keeps me motivated on a day to day basis.
Well, thanks for connecting those dots. Tim, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Your story at Georgia State, at NISS is incredibly inspiring. The work you’re doing is going to drive more enrollments, more outcomes for those students and society. So until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.
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