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black college students
On a campus blended into downtown Atlanta, Georgia State has raised success rates significantly for black, Latino and low-income students. Credit: Terrell Clark

ATLANTA — Stress is as familiar to college students as fast food and sleep deprivation. It’s always there, perched on their shoulders like a gargoyle. There are times it can become overwhelming.

For Georgia State University senior Aly Shields, extra stress swept into her life last year with a harsh suddenness. It was brought on by a family crisis; she just couldn’t shake it. Normally a solid student, Shields got back a few tests and papers with surprisingly low grades. She soon received an email from her college advisor: “Hey, is everything okay?”

To Shields, the meaning behind that message was clear: “I care about you.”

“When I went to meet with him, he helped me with studying, with finding more resources and with stress management,” said Shields, 23, a psychology major. “Students here understand that your advisor isn’t just there to plug in your classes. They are there for so much more than that.”

An email to Shields from her counselor may sound mundane. But it represents the core of a remarkable transformation at Georgia State University.

Over the last five years, Georgia State has turned itself into a leader among U.S. colleges for generating high academic achievement by populations that have often struggled at large, predominantly white institutions: African-American students, lower-income students and first-generation college students.

With its jumble of slate-gray concrete buildings mixed in with the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, Georgia State now graduates more black students with bachelor’s degrees every year than any other nonprofit school in the United States (1,777 in 2015). That stat includes the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Spelman, Howard and Florida A&M.

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent — nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.

And GSU increased those percentages while also increasing its number of black, Hispanic and low-income students by 10 percent.

Related: Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show

black college students
Georgia State’s dean of students, Darryl B. Holloman, says the university’s “newness and brashness” made it easier to create a culture supportive of black students. Credit: Terrell Clark

The centerpiece of GSU’s turnaround is the system it created and calls “GPS Advising.” Using computer algorithms, it closely tracks student performance, and GSU’s army of advisors monitors every student’s academic output on a daily basis. If a student’s performance veers off course just a bit, counselors receive an alert. They reach out to the student to find the source of the problem. According to GSU calculations, in 2014-15 the system generated more than 43,000 individual meetings between advisors and students.

“At many of the prestigious schools, there’s some element of, ‘You have to adapt to us.’ In its newness and brashness, Georgia State — which is just 100 years old, and that’s kind of a baby compared to some other institutions — is just brash enough to say, ‘No, we can adapt to you.’ ”

In addition, knowing how frequently students drop out because they find themselves unable to cover tuition, GSU instituted a program that provides modest “retention grants” to students who are short of money. Last year it offered nearly 2,000.

Another program, called “Keep HOPE Alive,” helps students who have lost Georgia’s HOPE scholarship — which covers tuition costs at state institutions — re-qualify for the money by working to lift their GPAs back to the required 3.0. And for incoming freshman it considers “at risk,” GSU offers an intensive seven-week summer prep program.

Darryl B. Holloman, dean of students and associate vice president for student affairs at Georgia State, said many black students often feel isolated and alone — and afraid to seek help because of their desire to prove they can do the work. So the aggressive outreach from Georgia State’s advisors can be a revelation, evidence that someone at the school cares about them.

“All these programs reinforce for students at Georgia State that ‘You belong here. It’s okay for you to be here. We have a culture that supports you,’ ” said Holloman. “That’s huge. At many of the prestigious schools, there’s some element of, ‘You have to adapt to us.’ In its newness and brashness, Georgia State — which is just 100 years old, and that’s kind of a baby compared to some other institutions — is just brash enough to say, ‘No, we can adapt to you.’ ”

black college students
Aly Shields, a Georgia State senior, had immediate help from her counselor when a family crisis affected her grades. Credit: Terrell Clark

This work has made GSU a campus where black students feel supported and valued.

“The advisors here are really invested in their students,” said Jasmine Odum, 19, a sophomore. “They’re really into making sure you’re okay. It motivates you to really try harder, because you know somebody is backing you up.”

Odum pointed out that her advisor is an African-American woman, which she said makes a difference to her. In fact, to serve one of the largest populations of black college students (more than 8,000) in America, GSU officials have built an infrastructure that includes high numbers of black administrators, advisors and faculty members.

Related: Colleges’ promises to diversify face one challenge: finding black faculty

About 10 percent of GSU instructors are black, Holloman said. The national average, excluding HBCUs, is about 4 percent.

From 2003 to 2015, Georgia State University’s six-year graduation rate for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent.

“When you see people who look like you and they have succeeded, it helps you academically,” said Zuwena Green, 21, a senior biology major who plans to go to medical school. “Science is a rough major, but in my classes I see a lot of black females. In fact, some of my teachers are black, too, and it’s great. I’m talking about black female instructors who are scientists and researchers. It’s actually very exciting.”

Austin Lewis, 21, said he’s had more black instructors in his last two semesters at Georgia State than he had in all his previous school years combined.

“It means I have a level of comfort here,” said Lewis, a junior sociology major. Speaking of the state’s flagship campus, the University of Georgia, he added, “When I go to visit a school like UGA, which has way more white students, it doesn’t feel the same. I think that does something to your psyche.”

Only about 7 percent of UGA students are African-American in a state where 34 percent of high school graduates are black.

In interviews at Georgia State, many black students said they feel they have the best of both worlds: the black peers, support staff and cultural environment they might find at an HBCU, but the resources and the diversity of a large state school.

black college students
A senior biology major, Zuwena Green says having many “black female instructors who are scientists and researchers” inspires her. Credit: Terrell Clark

On the weekends, GSU students said the campus feels even more like an HBCU. That’s because the number of black students who live on the downtown Atlanta campus is more than double the number of white students — 2,794 black students this fall compared to 1,209 white students. Most of its 25,000 students commute from nearby homes or apartments.

“I didn’t realize how large the African-American population is until I got here,” said Odum. “When you sit down in the classroom, it’s more people like you than anything else. It’s comforting, refreshing. And the black community here is more involved in the campus than you would think. They’re the ones in the Greek organizations and the campus clubs and athletic clubs. They’re the ones pushing the alumni associations. Black students are a big part of the spirit of the school.”

Alexus Walker, 20, said when she first walked into classrooms at GSU, she sensed something missing that she had long associated with school.

“In high school, I was one of the few black students and I always felt like I was being judged by the teachers and students,” said Walker, a GSU junior who went to high school in Gwinnett County. “In the classrooms here, I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. It feels normal.”

Related: What happens when a college recruits black students others consider too risky?

Jalissa Clay, an 18-year-old freshman, said she went to a predominantly black high school in Gwinnett County, so when applying to college she was intimidated by the idea of going to an overwhelmingly white campus like the University of Georgia.

“Science is a rough major, but in my classes I see a lot of black females. In fact, some of my teachers are black, too, and it’s great. I’m talking about black female instructors who are scientists and researchers. It’s actually very exciting.”

“I think it’s important to black students, as people from the African diaspora, to be around people who share a similar background,” Clay said. “We may not have had the kind of racially charged experiences as our ancestors, but we all know there are problems, and we understand each other. So it’s nice to be around other people who understand where you’re coming from, instead of being around people who don’t really know you or know the history.”

Bernard McCrary, director of Georgia State’s Black Student Achievement office, said it helps that many of GSU’s black staff members were the first in their families to attend college, just as he was.

“I think when you have a lot of first-generation folk, these are people who understand what that struggle is like for students because they’ve gone through it or had family members go through it,” McCrary said. “They get it, they understand and will do everything in their power to make sure the students they service are successful.”

Georgia State’s success has received national attention and numerous accolades. Last year, the American Council on Education, the largest national advocacy group representing the nation’s colleges and universities, gave Georgia State its Award for Institutional Transformation, praising the way the university had increased graduation rates and closed its achievement gap “in innovative and creative ways and achieved dramatic changes in a relatively briefly period.”

For black professionals like McCrary who have spent years in education circles hearing about the academic achievement gap between black students and white students, Georgia State’s success with black students has been enormously gratifying.

“We’ve been able to pull up kids that may be first-generation or from financially distressed backgrounds, kids the system has traditionally said are not going to make it,” McCrary said. “We’re pulling them to get college degrees in large numbers. What that says is there’s hope. Now we just need for others to follow suit.”

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