How Georgia State University delivers opportunity for all

An excerpt from Won't Lose This Dream and Q&A with author Andrew Gumbel

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Princeton Nelson, class of 2018

Photograph by Yosef Kalinko

Much has been written about how Georgia State University has increased its graduation rate by 74 percent in the last 15 years while building one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. Since 2011, the number of Black students graduating is up 47 percent, the number of students eligible for federal Pell grants earning a degree is up 46 percent, and the number of Latinx graduates is up 89 percent. Such increases were no accidents. They were the result of systematic institutional reform. In Won’t Lose This Dream, investigative journalist Andrew Gumbel explores the turf battles, educational experiments, student successes and failures, and leaps of faith that made GSU into what the New York Times recently called an “engine of social mobility.”

An excerpt from Won’t Lose This Dream

Where Princeton Nelson came from, a college education wasn’t just at the outer edges of possibility, it was beyond imagination. Yet here he was, a proud member of the class of 2018 at Georgia State University, a computer science major with a cap and gown and a more than respectable 3.3 GPA, taking his place at a crowded indoor commencement ceremony along with the Atlanta Fife Band and professors in gowns of many colors and a cascade of balloons in Panther blue and white that tumbled from the ceiling like confetti.

He, too, got to shake hands with the university president, Mark Becker, whose welcoming remarks had invoked “the magical power of thinking big.” He, too, got to hug his fellow graduates, many of them seven or eight years younger than him, many sporting homemade slogans on their caps thanking God, or their mothers, or joking that “the tassel was worth the hassle.” He, too, could bask in the pride of his relatives, none more amazed or delighted than the grandmother who had thrown him out as a teenager because he’d been too unruly to handle, or the aunt who had thrown him out all over again as a young adult because she didn’t like the company he was keeping.

Nelson came from nothing, and he understood at an early age that it would be up to him to carve a path to something better, because nobody else was going to do it for him. Even when he slipped—and he slipped a lot—he knew the choices he made could mean the difference between life and death. He was born in an Iowa prison, the child of two parents convicted of drug dealing at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, and within days he was in foster care, along with three older siblings. His mother stayed behind bars until he was three, and his father remained so conspicuously absent that Nelson didn’t learn his name until the age of fourteen. Mostly, he was raised by his grandmother, Loretta, who brought all four children home and did her best to raise them on an assembly worker’s salary in a small red house in suburban Chicago.

Nelson’s mother was in no state to take him even when she got out of prison. She fell back into the drug underworld and, months after her release, was found shot to death in an abandoned building on Chicago’s South Side. Nelson remembers seeing her body laid in an open casket at the funeral and remembers, too, how everyone looked at him, the poor homeless child with no mom or dad. “I don’t think mom is going to wake up,” he whispered to an uncle. And in that moment he intuited that his childhood, his age of innocence and wide-eyed wonder, was over already.

Loretta moved Princeton and his siblings to Atlanta for a fresh start, but there was little she could do to make up for what he had lost—or never had. He was caught smoking weed in a high school bathroom and arrested, the first of three occasions during his wild teenage years when he wound up in police custody and Loretta had to bail him out. His grades yo-yoed, he bounced in and out of special schools, and he barely graduated high school.

Still, he hated the feeling that he was a disappointment to his grandmother. He signed himself up at Atlanta Technical College, thinking at first that he’d train to be a barber. Then it dawned on him that as long as he was taking out loans he’d be better off working toward an academic degree, not just a trade qualification. There was a community college, Atlanta Metropolitan, right across the street, so he wandered over one day to enroll.

Nelson’s grades were strong enough to earn him an associate’s degree in computer science in two years. But his life, like that of almost every lower-income college student, remained precarious at best, a constant battle for time and money. When his aunt and uncle bought the house where he and his grandmother were living, one of the first things they did was evict him, saying they were concerned about his pot use and the shortcuts they suspected he was taking to make ends meet. They didn’t do it the gentle way, either. A sheriff’s deputy rapped at the door one morning and ordered Nelson to grab his things right away.

For two weeks he slept on the concrete floor of a bus station so he could bump up his savings from a job flipping burgers and buy himself a car. Once he had his Volkswagen Jetta, he signed on as an Uber driver. Soon he had a third job, as a security guard. Three days a week he stayed in a hotel to enjoy a bed and a hot shower; the other four days he parked overnight at a 24-hour gas station or outside a Kroger supermarket where the lights and security cameras made it less likely he’d be robbed, or worse.

He was still homeless when he started at Georgia State in the fall of 2016. Still, he plowed ahead because he was afraid that the federal Pell grants he’d been relying on to subsidize his studies would run out if he delayed too long. In his second year, he joined forces with two of his fellow computer science majors and started designing websites as a side gig. That made him hopeful enough to move out of his car and put all his savings into a deposit for an apartment in Castleberry Hill.

Academics were never Nelson’s problem. But he, like many first-generation college students, did question whether he truly belonged in higher education. He became fascinated by what it meant to live a normal, middle-class life and was determined to learn how to lead one himself. He’d spend hours sitting in coffee shops, just observing: how people sat, how they picked up their spoon and sipped their coffee, how they talked and listened and kept their negative emotions in check. “You don’t want to be judged. Not when you’ve been judged all your life and told you ain’t gonna be shit when you grow up,” he said. “I’m always thinking about where I came from. And I still feel like I’m dumb, like I’m still competing with all these college students and falling short.”

It’s a feeling that did not go away even after he graduated and headed toward his first full-time job as a software engineer for Infosys. “That’s the difference between me and those Harvard kids,” he said. “If people like me fail, we’re going to fail our life.”

The university was largely unaware of the extent of Nelson’s struggles while he was going through them but offered extra support when he most needed it. When he told the director of academic assistance that he’d grown up an orphan, she gave him a part-time job on her help desk. Twice when his money was running dangerously low, the university awarded him grants to help him reach the finish line. Without them he might never have graduated.

Nelson is just one beneficiary of the groundbreaking work that Georgia State has done over the past decade to graduate unprecedented numbers of low-income, minority, and first-generation students. And one of the most remarkable things about it is that almost every success story includes at least one moment where everything was in danger of crumbling to dust. At a school where close to 60 percent of undergraduates are poor enough to qualify for the federal Pell grant, that is just the nature of things. Most students don’t get to dwell in the heady realm of intellectual pursuit and personal self-discovery without also having to work twenty or thirty hours a week, scrimping for every last dollar to stay enrolled in class, bearing the responsibility of friends or family members in trouble, battling the Atlanta traffic in a battered car that may or may not start, and struggling to snatch even the semblance of a full night’s sleep. The students who walk this sort of tightrope tend to be people of uncommon determination and strength of spirit, and often it takes no more than a gentle nudge to reinforce their self-belief and keep them on track. That nudge might come from a trusted professor who expresses faith in their abilities, or from an advisor suggesting a course rearrangement to save a semester, or from the scholarship office pointing to free money for the taking. At the same time, the pressure is unrelenting. One botched exam, one misjudged decision, one personal crisis or skipped paycheck: any of these can be enough to crush the dream of a university education forever.

And yet Georgia State students still graduate in extraordinary numbers. In 2018, more than seven thousand crossed the commencement stage, five thousand of them to pick up a bachelor’s degree and the rest an associate’s degree from one of the university’s five community college campuses scattered around the Atlanta suburbs. That translated to a six-year graduation rate of close to 60 percent, significantly above the national average. Fifteen years earlier, the rate was a dismal 32 percent. Such a dramatic change is due to a lot more than a few unusually tenacious and talented individuals breaking through against the odds. We are talking about a fundamental transformation, a real-time experiment in social mobility that the university has learned to perform consistently, and at scale.

How did Georgia State do it? Things began to change in the wake of the 2008 recession when a new leadership team at Georgia State, acting out of economic necessity as well as moral conviction, determined that there was nothing inevitable about the failure of students who were poor, or nonwhite, or whose parents had never attended college. Rather, what held them back were barriers erected by the university itself and by the broader academic culture. Georgia State developed data to understand those barriers and to identify the inflection points where students most commonly came to a crossroads between success and failure.

This was no side project: the university reengineered its leadership and its entire institutional culture to give students the tools to fulfill their potential. It took considerable risks in doubling its enrollment of lower-income students (now almost 60 percent) and in vastly increasing the number of minority students (now more than 70 percent). Yet retention and graduation rates went up dramatically. Not only did lower-income students, African Americans, and Latinos stop lagging behind their peers, as they do at almost every other institution in the country; they started graduating in slightly higher numbers than the university average. The staggering fact is that a student like Princeton Nelson—poor, Black, and parentless—is now no more or less likely to graduate than the heir to a long line of college-educated multimillionaires.

For years, Georgia State has graduated more African Americans than any other university in the country—not by tailoring special programs to them but by treating them like everyone else and providing support where they need it, regardless of wealth, or skin color, or any other consideration. This is the wonder of Georgia State, and it rests on a simple idea: that if students are good enough to be admitted, they deserve an environment in which they can nurture their talents regardless of personal circumstances.

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Homecoming parades feature the marching band and decorated golf carts.

Courtesy of Georgia State University

Q&A with Andrew Gumbel

Has Georgia State’s revolution inspired a national movement?
Without a doubt, everybody in the country, especially public universities, is looking at what Georgia State has done and wants to know how they did it. It wasn’t just a killer app or a piece of software. It is about an institutional and cultural attitude that informs and changes everything you do on campus. Universities are notorious for being entrenched in their institutional ways. But Georgia State has now proven—with a scientific, data-based approach—that the old assumptions about lower-income students, first-generation students, and minority students being doomed to fail in large numbers are wrong. So, nobody else has to go and reinvent that wheel. This story shows how higher education can work in a way that, for many years now, we’ve not seen it work. Too many students load themselves up with debt and never get a degree. Georgia State is not the only university in the country that has understood that this is both morally and culturally unacceptable, but it is the one that, more than any other, has demonstrated a different model that works.

Reform coincided with the recession. How much do you think the economic crash had to do with the school’s receptiveness to change?
During the recession, Georgia State was left with some very difficult choices, as were a lot of public universities. State appropriations were being slashed, so universities had to think about other sources of revenue. The applicant pool was larger because people who couldn’t get into the workforce were going to school. GSU had to decide whether to take advantage of that to become more selective or to accept less-privileged students and then figure out ways to help them graduate. Almost every public university in the country took the first route because it’s safer. But because of the new leadership [Mark Becker became president in 2009], because they believed Atlanta would be resurgent soon after the recession, they decided to go the much riskier route of betting they could retain and graduate more students. Fundamentally, the recession was the trigger for thinking, It’s now or never.

Not quite a decade before U.S. News & World Report proclaimed GSU the second most innovative university in the nation (2018), the administration admitted students with good grades but poor SAT scores that would lower the school’s average and drop its national ranking. Why did they take this risk?
All standardized testing, whether it’s the SAT or the ACT or even IQ tests, is heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. The crude way of putting it is: It doesn’t measure how smart you are; it measures how rich your parents are. The new administration knew this and decided to practice what they saw in the data, which is that high school GPAs, especially among first-generation and lower-income students, are a much more reliable projection of student performance.

Georgia State University We Won't Lose This Dream
Launching a football program excited students and impressed state legislators, says Gumbel.

Courtesy of Georgia State University

You write that the administration identified some students as “swirlers.” What does that mean?
These students kept getting set back by core requirements. They would, for example, fail an intro math class that was a prerequisite for business school. So, they would take something completely different to repair their GPAs, such as history or jazz. Then, they would retake intro math. Even if they passed the second time, if there’s an issue with their competency in math, they’re going to struggle further down the road with accounting or finance. The cycle would keep repeating itself until they ran out of money. What needed to happen was for the university to spot a problem early on and redirect students to a related but more viable path, like marketing. Getting involved early has been transformative in terms of outcomes, retaining students, and graduation.

You believe the Panther Retention Grants were GSU’s most brilliant innovation. Why?
A certain number of students in good academic standing were dropping out very close to graduation because their federal Pell grant or HOPE money was running low, and they couldn’t sustain themselves for that last little bit. Instead of setting up a scholarship with a complicated application process, GSU decided simply to clear these students’ debts, no questions asked. And the vast majority graduated. The grants average $900, but the school ends up receiving many times that in tuition and fees because students stay enrolled. It’s an extraordinary win-win. The students don’t drop out, and the school makes money.

What was so radical about how GSU changed its advising system?
Describing the revolution in advising was my absolute favorite part of this project because it entailed so many complicated maneuvers and political battles. It meant finding money at a time when no money was available and coming up with technological solutions which didn’t previously exist. That’s the thing I probably admire the most about what Georgia State has done, how they managed that. At its heart, the idea was very simple. They changed advising from a reactive process, where staff wait for students to come in, to a proactive one where they were keeping an eye on students and bringing them in if they saw a problem. This meant finding $2.1 million to hire 42 new advisors during a hiring freeze.

Why do you think that this type of revolution is particularly timely?
We now live in an economy that requires much less unskilled or semiskilled labor and requires more skilled labor. Two thirds of jobs require some form of postsecondary qualification. Where are these skilled workers going to come from? We have to do a better job at graduating many more students than we have been up to now. Also, for the last 50 years, we’ve seen the gulf between rich and poor widening, squeezing out the middle class, in a way that people are coming to recognize is unsustainable. Something needs to happen to revive the American dream.

You’re an investigative journalist who’s covered events like the Oklahoma City bombing or unrest in Bosnia. How did you end up writing about a university?
The New Press wanted someone to write this book as a story, not just as an analysis of higher-education policy—to bring life to the people, the places, the students, the administrators, all the fights, all the struggles, all the different cultural barriers that had to be overcome. In my pitch to the Georgia State folks, I said, “You do realize there will be no acronyms in the book if I write it?” They also had the guts to entrust the task to an independent writer who would produce a narrative that dug into uncomfortable issues.

This excerpt originally appeared in Won’t Lose This Dream written by Andrew Gumbel and published by The New Press. It has been edited and condensed for space and reprinted here with permission.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.