By Nick Chiles
The Hechinger Report*
ATLANTA—Stress is as familiar to college students as fast food and sleep deprivation. It’s always perched on their shoulders like a gargoyle. There are times it can become overwhelming.
For Georgia State University senior Aly Shields, extra stress swept in last year, brought on by a family crisis. She couldn’t shake it. Normally a solid student, Shields got back a few tests and papers with low grades. She soon received an email from her college advisor: “Hey, is everything okay?”
“When I went to meet with him, he helped me with studying, with finding more resources and with stress management,” said Shields, 23, a psychology major. “Students here understand that your advisor isn’t just there to plug in your classes. They are there for so much more than that.”
An email from a counselor sounds mundane. But it represents the core of a remarkable transformation at GSU in recent years.
With its jumble of concrete and rehabbed older buildings mixed in with the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, Georgia State has turned into a leader among U.S. colleges for generating high academic achievement by groups that often struggle at large and predominantly white institutions: African-Americans, lower-income and first-generation college students.
Georgia State now graduates more black students with bachelor’s degrees (1,777 in 2015) than any other nonprofit school in the United States, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. That includes historically black colleges and universities like Spelman College and Howard University.
From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, the number of blacks finishing degrees within six years of starting grew from 29 to 55 percent, which is higher than for white students. Hispanics went from 22 to 56 percent. The number for lower-income students (eligible for a federal Pell grant) receiving degrees in 2014 was 51 percent.
And, GSU did that while growing the number of black, Hispanic and low-income students by 10 percent. About one-third of the university’s students are black. The national average at flagship state universities, show about 5 percent of students are black.
The centerpiece of GSU’s turnaround is called “GPS Advising.” Computer algorithms track student performance, and an army of advisors monitor every student’s academic output. If a student’s performance veers off course, counselors receive an alert and reach out. According to GSU, in 2014-15 the system generated more than 43,000 meetings between advisors and students.
In addition, knowing how frequently students drop out because they find themselves unable to cover tuition, GSU started providing modest “retention grants” to those short of money. Last year it offered nearly 2,000 grants.
Another program helps students who have lost Georgia’s HOPE scholarship — which covers state tuition costs — requalify by working to lift their grade point averages back to the required 3.0.
And to help incoming freshman, Georgia State puts those it considers “at-risk” through an intensive seven-week program before their first semester.
Darryl B. Holloman, dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs at Georgia State, said many blacks often feel isolated and alone — and afraid to seek help because they want to prove they can do the work. So GSU’s outreach can be evidence that someone at the school cares.
“All these programs reinforce for students at Georgia State that ‘You belong here …We have a culture that supports you,’ ” said Holloman. “That’s huge. At many of the prestigious schools, there’s some element of, ‘You have to adapt to us.’ In its newness and brashness, Georgia State …is just brash enough to say, ‘No, we can adapt to you.’”
Jasmine Odum, 19, a sophomore, said “The advisors here are really invested in their students. It motivates you to really try harder, because you know somebody is backing you up.”
Odum pointed out her advisor is an African-American woman, which she said makes a difference. To serve one of the largest American populations of black college students (more than 8,000), GSU hired a comparatively high numbers of black administrators, advisors and faculty members.
About 10 percent of GSU instructors are black, Holloman said. The national average, excluding HBCUs, is about 4 percent.
“When you see people who look like you and they have succeeded, it helps you academically,” said Zuwena Green, 21, a biology major who plans to go to medical school. “Science is a rough major, but in my classes I see a lot of black females. In fact, some of my teachers are black, too, and it’s great. I’m talking about black female instructors who are scientists and researchers. It’s actually very exciting.”
Austin Lewis, 21, said he’s had more black instructors in two semesters at Georgia State than he had in all his previous school years.
“It means I have a level of comfort here,” said Lewis, a sociology major.
“When I go to visit a school like UGA, which has way more white students, it doesn’t feel the same. I think that does something to your psyche.”
Only about 7 percent of UGA students are African American in a state where 34 percent of high school graduates are black.
Many black GSU students said they feel they have the best of both worlds: the black peers, support staff and a cultural environment they might find at an HBCU, but also the resources and the diversity of a large state school.
Black students said on weekends GSU feels like an HBCU because the number of black students who live on campus is more than double the number of white students — 2,794 black students compared to 1,211 whites. Most of the 25,000 students on the campus commute from nearby homes or apartments.
Jalissa Clay, an 18-year-old freshman, went to a predominantly black high school in Gwinnett County, so when applying to college she was intimidated by the idea of going to an overwhelmingly white campus.
“I think it’s important to black students, as people from the African diaspora, to be around people who share a similar background,” Clay said. “We may not have had the kind of racially charged experiences as our ancestors, but we all know there are problems, and we understand each other. So it’s nice to be around other people who understand where you’re coming from.”
C. Bernard McCrary, director of Georgia State’s Office of Black Student Achievement, said it helps that many of GSU’s black staff members were the first in their families to attend college, 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.”
Georgia State has received national attention and accolades for its work. Last year, the American Council on Education, the largest advocacy group representing U.S. colleges and universities, gave GSU its Institutional Transformation Award — the second time the 98-year-old organization has handed out such an award — for “exceptional progress in the area of student success and its elimination of all achievement gaps.”
The success has been gratifying for McCrary and others who have spent years in education circles hearing conversation about the academic achievement gap between black and white students.
“We’ve been able to pull up kids that may be first-generation or from financially distressed backgrounds, kids the system has traditionally said are not going to make it,” he said. “We’re pulling them to get college degrees in large numbers. What that says is there’s hope. Now we just need for others to follow suit.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is based at Teachers College, Columbia University. hechingerreport.org