Staying Power: Tech Makes Student Retention, Graduation Top Priorities
Every Georgia Tech student who stays and graduates is a success story. These days, Tech is taking new and innovative steps to make sure there are even more of them.
These efforts are part of the University System of Georgia’s Complete College Georgia (CCG) initiative, launched in 2011 as an offshoot of the Complete College America program. The program, as its name implies, hopes to ensure that students who get into college also get out — the right way.
Many of Georgia Tech’s retention and persistence programs have been in place for years, taking the Institute’s first-to-second-year retention rate from 85 percent in 1993 to 96 percent in 2013. The Institute’s six-year graduation rate has risen from 69 percent in 1993 to 82 percent in 2013 — one of the highest in the state.
The closer Tech gets to 100 percent, the harder it is to move the needle; still, Tech’s CCG steering committee has been working with the campus community to phase in a number of actions and interventions that promise to further close the gap.
“It would be easy for Georgia Tech to write up a report each year of things we’re already doing and tracking, but we’re investing a lot of new resources into CCG,” said Steven Girardot, associate vice provost for Undergraduate Education and co-chair of the committee with Sandi Bramblett, executive director of Institutional Research and Planning. “We think it’s important for every student we admit to have the resources to be successful.”
In November, the committee released a CCG progress report for the 2013-14 academic year, outlining key accomplishments and strategies for moving forward.
Ramping Up Resources
Of the many factors that may stand between a student and graduation, the big three appear to be fit, finances, and grades. But which students are affected by which factors, and why, and what can be done to help them?
These questions now land on the desk of Georgia Tech’s new retention and graduation coordinator.
“Committees come and go,” Girardot said, “so we really wanted to make sure there was some permanence and longevity behind the infrastructure we’re creating around retention, persistence, and graduation.”
Debbie Pearson, formerly a co-op program coordinator with Tech’s Center for Career Discovery and Development, moved into the new position in April 2014.
“We’re coming at CCG from a risk modeling approach, where we’re identifying students with risk attributes and recommending appropriate resources,” Pearson said. “We’re also looking at impact modeling — observing which programs impact large numbers of students and have high correlations with student success and graduation rates.”
Pearson’s leaving no stone unturned to help student populations that are traditionally underserved and underrepresented in postsecondary education, and she even calls students who have left of their own accord to find out why.
These surveys have been done in the past, Bramblett said, but Pearson is making them more robust and systematic. “That’s what’s really good about this,” she added. “We can identify trends and find out what we can help with.”
Making It Mandatory
Of course, given Georgia Tech’s rigor, the committee does not need a survey to tell them that academic performance is the No. 1 reason students don’t make it to graduation.
Because of this, the Center for Academic Success (CAS) has developed a new required course for students who return from academic dismissal — GT 2100: Seminar for Academic Success.
Fiona Brantley, associate director of the CAS since July, said she can’t take credit for initiating the course, but she has been involved as a facilitator. One aspect of GT 2100 that distinguishes it from similar courses at other universities is mandatory academic coaching.
“Students meet in a class setting but they also get help individually,” Brantley said. “The coaching piece makes it hard for them to avoid dealing with what their specific issue is.”
There’s also a push to get more students into academic coaching before they run into trouble.
“I say at FASET (orientation), we wouldn’t have all these services and programs, we wouldn’t have the Clough (Undergraduate Learning Commons), if our students didn’t need to take advantage of these resources,” Girardot said. “I show them the statistics of their entering class, and their SATs and average GPAs are as nearly close to perfect as you can get, yet the successful students are the ones who use these services proactively.”
Fortunately, helping students maintain their grades is a one-two punch that also knocks out many financial issues, since students who perform well get to keep their scholarships and financial aid.
Regardless of grades, however, many types of aid time out in four years, so Tech’s CCG plan also includes strategies like expanding the number of online undergraduate courses offered in the summer to reduce time to degree completion.
“That’s definitely one area of focus,” Pearson said. “Shrink the time to graduation, save tuition dollars, and get students into the workforce faster.”
Even so, as research from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning bears out, there are some good reasons why it often takes the Tech student more than four years to graduate — co-curricular reasons such as internships, co-ops, study abroad, and undergraduate research.
“Our students get here and realize they can do all these really cool things,” Bramblett said. “And it helps them in the job market, it helps them develop skill sets they’re going to need if they’re going to graduate school. So there are some good reasons why it takes a while to graduate, and there are some not-so-good reasons.”
Statistically, students who participate in co-curricular programs have better grades and are more likely to graduate, even if it does take them longer. The key thing is that they do graduate.
“I think student engagement is at the heart of all our goals and strategies,” Pearson said. “You get the student engaged, you help the student learn how to persevere, how to network, how to make use of all the resources at Georgia Tech, and that student’s going to be successful.”