Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets may have the more distinguished histories among local colleges. But Atlanta’s future may very well rest in the hands of the Panthers of Georgia State. That’s because the classes graduating from the lower-profile research university in Downtown Atlanta mirror the emerging demographics of the surrounding city—diverse both in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic background. In fact, GSU graduates a higher rate of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians than any of its in-state rivals and in 2011 awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any U.S. non–historically black college.
Over the past twenty years, GSU, which turns 100 next year, has worked to transition from commuter school to an urban campus attracting traditional-age collegians. Its physical investment—dorms, classrooms, and sports fields—helped transform the core of the city. But GSU’s investment in human capital will have a greater long-term impact on Atlanta.
The university’s success at graduating its diverse student population is no accident. About a decade ago, GSU administration confronted the problem that plagues most American institutions of higher learning: The young people underneath the mortarboards were overwhelmingly white. But while some colleges tried to identify the varying roadblocks to graduation for blacks and Hispanics and Asians, GSU decided to dedicate its limited resources to finding problems that all the underrepresented groups had in common.
The administration found around 30 percent of students were the first in their families to attend college. “These students had no frame of reference for college,” says Tim Renick, associate provost and chief enrollment officer. “That meant they were having more trouble navigating the system.” So, Renick says, the administration coordinated offices “that are often islands”—admissions, financial aid, the registrar, student accounts, student retention—under one associate provost office, which Renick currently occupies. Then the school selected courses with the highest failure rates and enlisted work-study and scholarship students who had done well in those classes to serve as supplemental instructors and peer mentors.
Lack of financial means was another commonality. A third of the student body came from households earning $30,000 a year or less, and 70 percent of GSU’s incoming classes were enrolling with the HOPE Scholarship. When they lost that aid due to falling grades, most dropped out. In response, GSU started Keep HOPE Alive, a program that provides former HOPE scholars with a $500 life jacket for two semesters, during which they are required to attend financial literacy and study-skill workshops and meet with advisers. Renick says 60 percent of students who go through the program reclaim HOPE.
Georgia State’s graduation rates matter because the school enrolls a diverse population to start with. According to College Navigator, just 37 percent of GSU’s student body is white, compared to 61 percent at Tech and 77 percent at UGA. The 8,400-plus African American undergraduate enrollment represents more than the combined undergrad populations of Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta. In the future our city will be more diverse than ever, and the jobs that will be available will require advanced education. Thanks to Georgia State’s efforts, it seems certain that its classes of 2013, 2020, 2030, and beyond will be well prepared.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.