It’s a transformative time in America, socially, culturally, economically, racially. And some of the most meaningful transformation is taking place in higher education.
In his newest book “Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System” (publication date Aug. 25), British-born, veteran journalist/author and Santa Monica resident Andrew Gumbel tells the inspirational — and hard-won — success story of Georgia State University; how it went from a hang-dog, also-ran educational institution to the national leader in educating lower income students.
“Today, a Georgia State freshman who arrives homeless and hungry is no less likely to succeed than the daughter of a billionaire,” says the publicity material. Gumbel’s book fleshes out the personal and institutional stories of how this transformation took root and grew. Today, Georgia State leads the nation in awarding bachelor’s degrees to African Americans, and graduation rates for African American, Hispanic and low-income students jumped from 32 percent in 2003 to 55 percent in 2018.
APPROACHED BY PUBLISHER
New Press invited Gumbel to write this book. “It’s the first time I’ve ever written about education,” he said in an interview, “so I’m not sure why they chose me. But I do know they didn’t want anyone steeped in education jargon and acronyms. They wanted someone who could tell the story as a story.
“I’ve written a lot about politics, and in my mind this is a story about generational change in America that hasn’t gotten enough attention. There’s a groundswell of a new generation of Georgians who are highly diverse, relatively unencumbered by the burdens of segregation and the state’s racist past, who want to get past it, change it; there’s an impatience to create a very different kind of politics, not only in Georgia, but in the US as a whole.”
WHAT THEY DID
Georgia State’s transformation began with leadership, aided and abetted by teams of creative thinkers who made it work and succeed. “This book is not just about what they achieved, but how they figured out how to get there in the face of tremendous internal and external opposition.”
Georgia State caters to B-average students, with a network of 5 community colleges in the Atlanta suburbs serving as a pipeline to its main campus downtown. It’s a block from the state capital, Gumbel says but, “Lawmakers never even used to look out their office windows onto the campus.” Now it’s different, “They’re excited about Georgia State’s reputation as a national leader, they’ve transformed their own mentality and are open to a belief in that change can work.”
Universities generally take for granted that students will make their own way, figure things out, navigate the system. But at Georgia State, the university meets students where they are, upending an entrenched system of top down thinking. They changed their focus to what students need to succeed, in multiple arenas.
Developing a pioneering data-based approach, working in partnership with technology firms to create innovative user platforms, each student is tracked through the system. As Gumbel explains, “If a few hundred dollars to register, or a bureaucratic problem made the crucial difference in preventing the student from dropping out, the system could point these things out and human intervention would help resolve the problem.”
Georgia State, says Gumbel, “Has shown that it’s incumbent on universities to take responsibility for their students beyond admissions, and to understand if students are dropping out in large numbers, when otherwise they’re academically fine, then it’s something they’re doing wrong, not the students.”
This served Georgia State well during the COVID19 pandemic. “Georgia State has a system for monitoring students’ university accounts and for delivering microgrants as needed, no application required. So when it came to distributing the CARES money (COVID emergency funds) from the government, while others were trying to figure out how to divide the money and get it to their students, Georgia State analyzed how much everybody needed, distributed the money in chunks ranging from $200 to $2,000 and distributed $22 million within 24 hours of the money coming in. Astonishing.”
CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE
Gumbel credits two visionary catalysts: Tim Renick, who invented and and has run the Student Success Program from its beginnings, and University President Mark Becker.
“Tim Renick was the driver of the database approach (think Moneyball), and he and his extremely talented team came up with the innovative programs now being copied across the country. They partnered with tech firms to pioneer platforms for an Advising system and the AI Chat bot, that grew from helping students complete financial aid forms to serving the entire undergraduate experience. He should be recognized as a national treasure.
“And University President Mark Becker, who figured out how to negotiate the treacherous waters of dealing with a university system, a Red state legislature, the governor’s office, budget cuts in the aftermath of the 2008 recession when there already was suspicion of higher education. He managed to get money to transform the Advising system and made the case, if we’re going to be bold and create change with a forward-looking dynamic, this is the way to do it.”
Gumbel shares many of the students’ challenging stories and how Georgia State helped make them who they are today; they’re deeply moving and serve as a lesson for our times.
“The outcome feels like the spirit of a second civil rights movement,” Gumbel says. “I think it’s a hopeful story, it shows if you come from an underprivileged background— whether it’s race, class, lack of money, broken home, whatever—the idea you’re not likely to do well in your education is a complete myth. One of the most powerful things Georgia State has done is prove that is categorically untrue.”
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.