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Lynette Bell: Hello, and welcome to the first of Truist Foundation’s conversations with our grantees. I am Lynette Bell, the President of Truist Foundation. At Truist, our purpose is to inspire and build better lives and communities, and we do this in the foundation by partnering with nonprofit organizations that support not only this mission, but their mission and vision to build better communities. During this audio series, I will be sitting down with various partners of the Foundation to give them the opportunity to share the amazing work they are doing, making a difference in their respective communities. Today, I am joined by Dr. Timothy Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University. Welcome Dr. Renick.
Timothy Renick: Thank you, Lynette. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.
LB: Before we dive into this conversation, could you give our listening audience a brief introduction, Dr. Renick, to who you are, and tell us a little bit about yourself.
TR: Sure, thanks for the opportunity. I’m Tim Renick, I’m from Georgia State University, and a longtime faculty member here, I actually teach Comparative Religious Ethics. I’m a professor of religious studies. I chaired the Religious Studies Department, directed the Honors Program. But my career took a shift about fifteen years ago as I was appointed Georgia State’s first administrator who was in charge of student success, in charge of supporting students from the time they first enrolled to the point of graduation, and over the last fifteen years, we’ve done a lot of pioneering work at Georgia State in using data and analytics, most recently AI and other technologies, to provide wraparound support in a systematic way for our students, and we’ve seen transformative outcomes. So, you know, basically half-way through my career, I’ve kind of reinvented myself, and I’ve become a data person who helps lead conversations nationally about how to support especially students from underserved backgrounds. And most recently, I’ve become the first executive director of Georgia State’s new National Institute for Student Success, dedicated to helping campuses, especially institutions that enroll large numbers of low-income, minoritized, and first-generation college students, develop supports for those students so that they can graduate at much higher rates.
LB: Wow Dr. Renick. That is really amazing. To have the opportunity to shift in your long tenure at Georgia State University to do something so impactful and worthwhile is really heartwarming. But when you think about your work, and what your organization is trying to address, what would you say is that top priority on that scale that you’re building to increase the graduation rate for low-income, first-generation college students? What is the heart of your work about, and why are you so passionate about it?
TR: Good question Lynette. A lot of my passion flows out of my work for many years in the classroom. I taught thousands of students at Georgia State over basically a twenty-year period. I saw first-hand the potential they have, and I also saw first-hand the struggles and how many talented students never made it to the point of graduation. There are few things more important today than higher education when it comes to social mobility and life opportunities. It’s currently the case that the college graduate is 1/3 as likely to be unemployed. The college graduate will earn about 40% more in the early years of their careers, and over the course of their careers will earn about a million dollars more than the high school graduate. But those are just the raw numbers. It’s also the case that college graduates have more options. They have more mobility geographically, and longer life expectancy on average, because they have access to better healthcare. Their children will have better life opportunities, better healthcare, and better education, and so forth. Suffice to say, there are few things more important than a college degree, and yet there are few things at this point less equitably distributed across the economic spectrum in the US than a college degree. It is right now about eight times more likely that if you’re among the 20% wealthiest Americans you’ll attain a college degree, than if you’re among the 20% least wealthy Americans, and that’s not how it should be. We all know that if we’re going to create an equitable and just society, we need to make the opportunities that people have available across the economic spectrum. So, you ask what is the heart of my work. The heart of my work is saying, “We can do better.” We not only can, but we must, do better as a nation, as communities, in providing educational opportunities to all people. What we should be rewarding is talent, not zip codes, not – you know – birthrights and so forth. The National Institute for Student Success is dedicated to producing stronger and far more equitable outcomes across the economic spectrum. I mentioned Georgia State has been working in this space for fifteen years, and I have been leading the efforts. Our most proud accomplishment in this time-period is that we have improved graduation rates by more than 70%. That is fantastic. But what is almost unheard of is that we have eliminated equity gaps. At Georgia State now for seven years, our low-income students, our black students, have all graduated at or above the rate of the student body overall, meaning that if you are an incoming student to Georgia State this fall, regardless of whether you are black or white, Hispanic, low-income, or middle and upper income, you have an equal chance of attaining a college degree. That is the way it should be. That is the way we need to make it nationally.
LB: Dr. Renick, the bragging rights… I was taking great notes here, and the great graduating rates and great wraparound services provided to students, especially who are first-generation or who come from lower-income means, providing an equitable playing field for them to succeed, especially as you look to their future as these individuals change the situation they may have started in and build that generational wealth for future generations, and I love that Georgia State has really taken this – kind of – social impact mission of providing education and using education as that baseline for students to succeed. It’s really phenomenal what you’re doing and it’s so very unique. I heard you say “hey, we’re helping other universities” who have these populations of minority students, as well as first generation and low-income students to do the same thing and replicate this work. But as you think about this and if you want to humanize this for our listening audience, do you have a story that you want to share about a student success that is telling? I’ve heard stories before, and I can pull one out, but I’m not going to pick for you. I’m going to let you pick. I’m sure there are probably thousands of stories you can pick that humanizes it today for our listening audience.
TR: Yeah, it’s a great question Lynette. And you’re right, there is a personal side to all of this. We’re graduating at Georgia State alone 3,500 more students every year than we were 10 years ago, but each one of those 3,500 additional graduates is an important and compelling story about the power of education, but also about the power of needing to guide and support students through that whole process. One of my favorite examples is of a student named Austin, who we got to know quite well a few years ago. He was a first-generation student a couple of years ago who probably shouldn’t have been in college in the first place if you just go by the national odds, because he was low-income, he was first-generation, and he was the subject of a really difficult childhood. You know, his father contracted ALS when he was in middle school. His life changed at that point. He was the oldest son, and he became responsible for helping the family get through the father’s illness. Sadly, the father eventually died. What Austin was facing in trying to get to college as a high school student facing all these hurdles was beyond what any of us would really want or wish upon anybody. And yet he persisted, he worked hard, got good grades, he qualified not only for the Hope Scholarship but also for the Zell-Miller Scholarship, he got into Georgia State, and he was ready to go to orientation and begin his first fall semester, and he got his first bill and realized it was many times larger than he had anticipated. At first, he blamed himself, like a lot of first-generation college students do. You know, “it must have been some mistake I made.” “I was foolish to think that I could go to college under my circumstances.” But being a smart individual and a very persistent one, he wanted to find out where he had gone wrong in his calculations. The summer that Austin was going through this process, we had just launched a ChatBot at Georgia State: an automatic texting platform available to our incoming students 24/7 to answer any question they have. It’s AI enhanced. It goes into a big knowledge base and it pulls out answers to the students’ questions. We know from the electronic record that over several days Austin began asking this ChatBot to try and figure out the bill and why it was so much more than he anticipated. Turns out that there was some system at the state which had transposed a couple of digits on his social security number, and the Zell-Miller Scholarship he qualified for wasn’t being applied to his account. Once he saw that problem he was able to resolve it. He came into campus with his mother, paid the relatively small balance remaining on that bill, and enrolled at Georgia State. He not only became one of our star students, but he ended up interning in Senator Isaacson’s office, graduated in the minimum time in four years, and he is now working in a policy center in Washington, DC. What that story indicates is what many students are grappling with behind the scenes. Right? There’s this complex system in front of them. They are limited in the resources they have available to them, and even small supports that we can offer, like a 24-hour texting platform that can answer questions when the students are actually asking them, often times after hours when the offices are closed and so forth, that can be the difference. And if this one thing can make a difference for Austin, what can be the difference if we could take this nationally? If we could scale these kind of programs? That’s the mission of the National Institute for Student Success.
LB: That is so amazing that the National Institute for Student Success has used innovation and technology at Georgia State to help students grapple with the complexities of financial aid. I just remember I was a first-generation college student, and financial aid and scholarships were critical to me going on to continue my higher education. The fact that you were smart enough to think about “How do we address the system which we created, the system around financial aid and financial resources so that students can use that technology in a way they understand which is texting?” That’s what they understand all the time. They always have their phone in their hands. To put a Chat Box in AI, which we clearly use in the financial services industry as we try to get clients and business, and to know that universities are going down that same pathway to try and address some of the basic core needs to erase and eradicate those barriers that exist to continued higher education and success I think is really phenomenal, and that that continues to be something you strive to scale across multiple platforms and institutions and I’m hoping those institutions are open to it. But along the way, Dr. Renick, and I know when you talk about technology, and AI, and innovation, and people, there are probably some lessons that you’ve learned in this role, and that you guys have been doing for 15 years, and something that you’ve leaned on. I know we’ve had the pandemic happening, and social and racial equity happened. What are some of the lessons you’ve had to lean on during these very trying and difficult times that may have affected these students trying to come into this system with the National Institute for Student Success?
TR: I think that’s an important question, Lynette. I think the most important lesson we’ve learned over the last decade-plus is that it’s often the simplest things that are the obstacles, and often the simplest forms of supports are the most important. We have a very high-tech platform that we’re using at Georgia State and we’re sharing these technologies and approaches with our partner campuses as part of the National Institute, which is tracking students using predictive analytics. We’ve looked at historical data, determined what tripped up students in the past, what behaviors predate students dropping or flunking out of the university, and instead of waiting for those same mistakes to happen with our current students, we’re tracking the students on a day-to-day basis as we update our information systems to track these behaviors. And point of fact, for nine years now, we are monitoring every single graduate for about 800 risks factors every single day. We’re looking at their registration, their attendance, and so forth, and making determinations about what we can do to intervene to help these students. But the lesson has been that its often really simple things that trip up students. So some of the most impactful interventions we’ve had using this platform are things like, first, looking at students’ registration records, and making sure they’re registered for the right courses. It’s complicated to get a college degree. Right? There are lots of courses, lots of options, lots of electives, lots of prerequisites, and helping students get into the right courses in the right sequence may seem like a no-brainer, but when you’re dealing with 50,000 students at a place like Georgia State, that can be really complicated, and making sure that the students are registered for the right courses before the semester begins is critical. Looking at course attendance: so, we’re not able to get faculty members to take course attendance, and relay that information on a daily basis, across 10,000 course sections that we offer every semester at Georgia State, but we are able to use electronic data to help us in this regard. Almost all courses now have a learning management system or a platform that students can log on to to talk to other students in the class, get assignments, learn about their grades, and sometimes take quizzes and so forth. What we’ve started to do is monitor that learning management platform to look for students who are not logging onto their classes. We’ve got them signed up for the right class. The next question is “Are they engaged with that class that they are rightfully signed up for?” And as early as three days into the semester, we’re tracking students down who haven’t logged onto their class recently to see what’s going on. These are not truant officers, we are not penalizing the students in any way, these are counselors designed to help the students figure out what’s going on. Are you having trouble with your technology at home? Are you having financial issues? Are you academically overwhelmed and need tutoring support? Why don’t we have that conversation three days into the semester, as opposed to after the semester ends and the student has achieved a non-passing grade or has already dropped out of the university. It’s those sorts of things that we need to take care of, and the encouraging thing about this approach is that it is very common-sensical. This is not requiring high-level systems to necessarily look at every detail to help the student. If we can help them be in the right classes, if we can look at their attendance on a regular basis, if we can track their financial well-being, something that Truist cares greatly about. We’ve begun tracking our students for certain financial analytics, if they’ve begun to have holds on their accounts for balances that they can’t pay of, or if they’re at risk of losing their full scholarship or some other institutional scholarship. Why don’t we reach out at the first signs of financial instability, instead of waiting for the student to drop out of flunk out of the university? It’s doing those things at scale, and systematically, that’s part of the approach that we’re sharing with all of our partner institutions. The Institute for Student Success is currently working with 30 institutions across the US to try and help them and train them, to disseminate such best practices, so that the learning curve will be much quicker for them than it was for us at Georgia State.
LB: Yeah, that’s really important work, and I really believe that the use of data helps drive informed decisions, and, you know, the fact that you’re looking at potential risk factors that show up immediately when students have not logged in or logged back into classes or this kind of analytical assessment has really been critical to the work and really shows how strong the components that you’ve put in place as you’ve thought about this program that the National Institute for Student Success has created, and implementation addresses not only the human side of it but the behavioral side of it as well. You guys have really unpacked so much and then synthesized it in a way that makes it easy and accessible for students to stay connected, bringing in those human elements as well as the technology elements. I think that is something that is far above what I’ve seen in any institution and now that other high learning institutions are participating in learning this process, because the goal as I understand it is that graduation rates, not only in your particular university system, but across the country, improve, and as you think about that, Dr. Renick, what message about your work do you think everyone should hear? I’ve heard a lot of messages today, and I hope I’m summarizing rightly what you’ve shared, but what do you want people to know about the work that your organization does, as a huge takeaway to talk about scale and growth?
TR: Yeah, I think one of the most important lessons about the work we’ve done at Georgia State and now through the National Institute for Student Success is one that turns responsibility for the inequities that currently exist in higher education attainment. For a very long time, they basically blamed the students, right? If they don’t complete their degree program, if they don’t graduate, if they drop out, if they flunk out it’s a failing of the student, or so the narrative went. But Georgia State has shown in very strong terms that much of that is a lie. It’s a lie to blame the student. We, in many higher ed institutions are accomplices to the student dropping out, and in many other instances we’re really primarily to blame. We’ve shown, for instance, that lower-income students can graduate at the same rate as middle and upper-income students. In the past the narrative was that low-income students don’t graduate at the same rates because they’re low income and because they have certain disadvantages in life including, obviously, financial ones. Therefore, we shouldn’t be concerned about the fact that they’re not graduating at the same rate. It’s fully explainable. What is the reality though is that it wasn’t fully explainable. By intervening with these students early on, to give them the supports – we’ve talked about several of them today: The Chat Box information 24/7, the tracking and making sure that they’re logging on to their classes, the looking at early grades to make sure that students have the support they need, the financial wellness component to make sure that students are financially on track. By tracking those sorts of issues, and by giving students support in a timely fashion, we have leveled the playing field, raised the graduation rates of low-income students to the same rates as upper income students, which shows in effect that it was, in effect, us all along. And part of the mission that I think is so important to do is to convey the message that we in our hands have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for. If it really is the case that low-income students, minoritized students, or disadvantaged students are destined to succeed at much lower rates, then we’re not responsible. But it is not destiny. It is not demographics. It is in many cases issues that we have under our control as higher ed institutions, and we can do a better job of – as you put it, Lynette – using the data and providing wraparound supports for our students, level the playing field in a way that will have profound implications for our students and communities. One of the most important indicators that I think is underappreciated nationally is social mobility. We pay attention to how much college graduates earn, but what is equally or more important than the raw salaries they’re earning after graduating is “How impactful was the college experience in taking them from one economic standing they were in when entering college to a higher economic standing after graduation?” That is what is called social mobility, and one of the markers we’re using to track in our programs how effective are our campuses and our partner campuses on helping students improve their economic standing. Georgia State right now is in the top 1% of all US colleges and universities when it comes from taking students from low-income backgrounds and moving them fifteen years later – or helping them move fifteen years later – to the upper half of Americans by annual household income. That is what we need to replicate across the US, again and again, to create greater social mobility, greater life choices, greater health opportunities, and stronger educational opportunities for the next generation.
LB: Dr. Renick, you just blew me out of the water with the last commentary that you made. The premise was that students fail because of the environment they came from. What you’ve done is eradicate that myth, based on what you’ve put into the National Institute for Student Success, surrounded by these higher educational institutions’ organizational complexities and constraints, based upon what the end user clients, your students, don’t even have an understanding or an inkling of how to navigate. So you’ve now created a different pathway for them to navigate the system that exists, eradicating barriers [to] their success so that they can have that social mobility to change dynamics for themselves and their families. They can clearly eradicate those barriers to continue to help students evolve and grow. And I think what you’ve done from a scale perspective… and you’re in the top 1%, we need to have this happen across the United States in higher education institutions. So as you think about this, I want you to make it that your job is no longer necessary, that the National Institute for Student Success has done exactly that – been successful, and now you’ve accomplished your work and the goal and the logical conclusion of your work. If that happens, what obstacles do you think you’ve defeated?
TR: It is a real question for me. What is the end goal for the National Institute for Student Success? And I say quite seriously that I would be very happy in ten years from now if there was no need for this Institute to exist. What we’re seeking is to give college students equal footing, equal opportunities to succeed, especially college graduates from low-income and minoritized backgrounds, we’re also committed to reducing and then eliminating equity gaps based upon race, ethnicity, and income-level across higher education institutions. That seems an incredibly lofty goal, and it might seem utterly unrealistic to attain over a ten-year period, but I want to suggest why that’s not necessarily the case. Georgia State has been at the front, and we’re not the only pioneering institution using data and AI to support students, but what we’ve basically done is borrowed some of the techniques that are a part of the commercial world now. You know, you go onto Amazon or other websites and there’s analytics being collected and proactive outreach being done to you, often times to maximize profits. What we’re doing through these approaches is using the same techniques to maximize, not necessarily profits, but to help students attain what is an important goal which is “I want a college degree, and I’m willing to pay for it. Help me attain this.” The reality of it is that a lot of what Georgia State has done over the last decade, especially the last five years, wouldn’t have been doable a decade ago or fifteen years ago, because its using AI and predictive analytics and platforms like a Chat Box that didn’t exist. The nice thing about these approaches from a long-term perspective is that they’re imminently scalable. We see that in the corporate world. You can use these techniques to provide services to not just hundreds of customers, but to thousands and then tens of thousands. I’m optimistic that the next decade will be one of great progress in improving graduation rates at post-secondary institutions and in reducing equity gaps, precisely because I think these new approaches, these new technologies, these new data insights, are going to be able to be scaled across multiple institutions, they’re affordable, and in many cases they provide a positive ROI, meaning that you invest in doing some of these things, and the revenues created actually outpace the costs of the intervention itself, because holding onto additional thousands of students on an individual campus means holding onto those tuition dollars as well. I think the timing is right for the scaling of these approaches, and I think there’s every possibility of improving these programs at the institutional level, and of reducing and then eliminating equity gaps.
LB: Dr. Renick, this has been such a great opportunity to speak to you. I will say what drew the Truist Foundation to the National Institute for Student Success was just what you described, in this imaginary world in the next decade, we have the opportunity to scale, driving technology and data to change the social mobility of minoritized students, low-income students, and first-generation college students so that they can change the economic mobility of their families. So I want to thank you so much Dr. Renick for coming here today to share your work with the National Institute for Student Success and Georgia State. The Truist Foundation is proud to be a partner of NISS, so thank you so much for your time today.
TR: Lynette, thank you, and thanks to the Foundation. The Truist Foundation has been a great supporter of these efforts for a number of years now, and is a critical partner in this very worthwhile goal that we share.
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