Universities ‘complicit’ in dropout equity gaps

‘Engine of social mobility’ outlines recipe for success: timely, personalised support delivered at scale

九月 15, 2023
Source: iStock

Universities will never close equity gaps until they “take ownership” of failings that disproportionately harm the most disadvantaged students, according to a sector leader.

Tim Renick, senior vice-president of Georgia State University (GSU), said universities must acknowledge their role in creating “systems that swallow some students up”.

“We’re the problem,” Professor Renick said. “We’re complicit in the dropout rates of our students. If we’re dealing with gaps in success rates for students from different populations, it’s not all on secondary [school]. It’s not all on society. A good part of it is on us.”

GSU was acclaimed as an “engine of social mobility” by The New York Times after boosting its completion rates by about 70 per cent in a little over a decade. Hailed for fully eliminating racial and income-based disparities in graduation rates, it has simultaneously opened its doors to more disadvantaged people.

Having admitted its first black student in 1962, it now enrols almost four times as many as all Ivy League institutions combined and graduates more African American bachelor’s students than any other university in the country.

In a pep talk for Australian universities facing political pressure to ramp up disadvantaged enrolments, and a legislative onus to improve their student supports, Professor Renick outlined how his institution had achieved such a turnaround. “[We] deliver personalised support to students in a timely fashion and at scale,” he told the latest episode of Studiosity’s Reimagining HigherEd podcast, released on 14 September.

Much of this work involves data analytics and artificial intelligence. After launching a round-the-clock chatbot seven years ago, initially to help incoming students with tasks like entrance exams and financial aid applications, GSU discovered a neglected pool of marginalised students who had good academic aptitude but struggled to “navigate the bureaucracy”.

Another service to help first-year students with things like immunisations and housing attracted considerable traffic at midnight – an illustration of the “subtle ways” universities’ nine-to-five approaches “disadvantage certain student populations”, Professor Renick observed.

“Within three years, we had reduced the rate of students who were getting tripped up by…administrative obstacles by over 30 per cent,” he said. Chatbots now serve students right through to graduation, helping with coursework as well as logistical issues.

The university also overhauled its first-semester curriculum from around 80 fields of study to a handful of “meta majors” in areas like business and the arts – a “critical” change for low-income students with limited financial assistance. “If it takes them two years to find the right-fit academic field, they often don’t have enough aid remaining to get them to the point of graduating.”

In another innovation, GSU introduced a “micro grant programme” for latter year students whose financial aid was about to expire. After realising that it had the information it needed to identify such students, the university decided to award the grants “proactively”.

“We started just…putting the money in their accounts,” Professor Renick said. From an initial batch of 40 grants, it now awards up to 3,000 a year. A Boston Consulting Group analysis found that the scheme more than paid for itself, with the university dispensing grants averaging $900 (£720) while earning over $3,000 in revenue it would otherwise have forgone.

Professor Renick said that when students dropped out for financial reasons, only 30 per cent returned. “For $900, we’re turning what were 30 per cent completion rates into 80 per cent completion rates. You couldn’t do that with your first-year students. The right amount of money at the right time can make a huge difference in the prospects of a student…securing the degree.

“If students…think they can succeed and believe others want them to succeed, they’re more likely to succeed. I’ve had many students comment: ‘I didn’t know anybody was watching. Now I’m more dedicated…to complete my degree, because I know I’d be letting people down if I didn’t.’”

Podcast host Sally Kift told Times Higher Education that universities could no longer expect students to “adapt” to institutional practices. “There really has to be a meeting, at least halfway…about creating the environments that enable students to be successful,” said Professor Kift, president of the Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows network.

“Students want to make an informed choice, but they need to be guided. We need to present much more just-in-time, just-for-me, just-in-case and just-enough [services] across the spectrum. It is not beyond our wit to do that, because we are awash with data. It’s just [that] we haven’t turned that data into actionable intelligence that we can use to support students.”




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