It is the duty of global higher education providers to reduce inequalities that have been pushed on disadvantaged students for decades by defying conventional approaches to students, according to Dr Tim Renick, Vice President for Enrolment Management and Student Success at Georgia State University (GSU) in the U.S.

At the second annual Siyaphumelela Conference, a highly successful congregation of international speakers and key role players, held in South Africa from 28-30 June, Dr Renick discussed the policies implemented by GSU to bolster student success rates.

According to University World News, internal research has already uncovered more than 800 issues regarding student drop-out rates in the U.S. In fact, statistics note that students who derive from households bringing home salaries within the top 25 percent of earning thresholds in the country are up to 10 times more likely to earn a degree than those from homes in the bottom 25 percent.

“In 2003 Georgia State University had a 30% graduation rate. But more significantly, there was a disproportionate gap between the success rate of white students and those of other ethnicities – African American, Latino and Asian – as well as between students from higher income brackets versus those from lower income households,” writes Nicola Jenvey for University World News.

Back then, GSU’s total student cohort comprised of 60 percent white students, but the GSU of today has done everything in its power to embrace student diversity, now hosting a population where black students make up around 63 percent. Another development is that a significant portion of these students now qualify for financial support, a factor that would previously have been hindered by low household income.

But between 2008 and 2012, GSU received another blow when its budget was slashed by US$40million in-line with the recession, University World News reports.

“The university realised it could not continue with its historic course when there was a clear demonstration for a need to change approach. We questioned what type of institution we wanted to be to accommodate the students of today and not those from yesteryear,” said Dr Renick.

Management concluded that it would be irresponsible for GSU to expect students to change to accommodate the university – instead, the university was honour-bound to adapt in order to suit a new generation of students. According to University World News’ report, this generation is marked by lower household incomes and disadvantaged educational systems.

GSU understood that the majority of students had not had access to career guidance counselling, leaving them largely unaware of a huge range of employment opportunities. To address this, GSU established an online live job data platform to provide a detailed career search tool that is both extensive and efficient.

Next GSU set up a ‘Freshman Learning Community’, allowing students who were far from home to form a learning support group of 25-peers. These students not only travel together, but also share the same class timetable.

“This way students, typically far from home and outside their family environment, can form new friendships and ‘family units’ that help them adjust to life on a large-scale campus. They are no longer alienated,” explained Renick.

GSU also sought to provide mathematics support for struggling students, as well as a broader student support system encouraging students to ask for help from tutors should they need it. After the changes were implemented, GSU found a 35 percent decrease in the student drop-out rate for its introductory maths course. The institution continues to run the course in this new format.

Another innovative change was the introduction of peer tutors, exploiting the fact that students are much more likely to ask for help from fellow students than from teachers.

The ‘Panter Rentention Grants’ were also introduced, providing financial support for students whose outstanding tuition payments would previously have forced them to quit before graduation. As a result of this, students are able to stay and complete their studies, and Renick notes that the overall return on investment is now more than 200 percent.

“The bottom line is, this approach has levelled the playing fields. These programmes can make a difference by systematically looking at the student experience and thus boosting the graduation rates, particularly among lower-income, disadvantaged students,” Renick resolved.

Image via Flickr.

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