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‘Harvard for the masses’ — at a community college in Atlanta

Front of a community college building. (iStock)

While it’s not impossible to fail out of Harvard University, the school is known for providing a range of supports to its students that help the vast majority make it through.

With its extraordinary wealth, that is easier for Harvard to do than most other schools. That is especially true of community colleges, two-year institutions that often get short shrift in national discussions about higher education but that provide millions of students from across the country with an affordable route to a bachelor’s degree.

But wrapping supports around students is exactly what a community college in Georgia is doing, with extraordinary results, as explained in this post by David L. Kirp, a professor at the graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley.

Kirp, a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education think tank based in California, is the author of numerous books and scores of articles about social issues confronting the United States. He is focused, however, on education and children’s policy, and in 2008, he served a member of Barack Obama’s presidential transition team and drafted a policy framework for early education.

Read why Kirp says Perimeter could be a model to improve the more than 1,000 community colleges across the country.

By David Kirp

Six years ago, just 6 percent of the students enrolled at Atlanta’s Perimeter College earned a degree in three years. That year, the college merged with neighboring Georgia State University, which has a well-deserved reputation for boosting graduation rates and closing the opportunity gap. The effect has been astonishing — now, more than 80 percent of Perimeter’s full-time students have either graduated, transferred or are still enrolled within three years of starting college.

Not only has the graduation rate risen, the opportunity gap has been wiped out. At Perimeter, as at most higher education institutions, race, ethnicity and income used to be reliable predictors of which students would graduate. The year before the merger, White students were two-and-a-half times more likely to earn a degree than African- Americans. No longer — Black, Latino and Pell grant recipients are at least as likely to graduate as the overall student body.

This is not a “miracle in Atlanta” story, but a demonstration that the smart use of evidence-tested practices will make an outsized difference in graduation rates. Georgia State took the strategies that have worked well at the university and adapted them to the community college setting.

As Tim Renick, who masterminded the turnaround at GSU and has been steering these efforts, told me: “Despite the conventional wisdom, demographics are not destiny. Rather than blame the students, we took a hard look in the mirror.”

The key to Perimeter’s success is its laserlike focus on enhancing students’ sense of belonging — the realization that they are members of a community that’s committed to their success. Research conducted by psychologists Greg Walton and David Yeager has shown that brief “belonging” experiences have long-term effects on students’ academic performance. At Perimeter, “belonging” is not a one-shot event — it’s a North Star guiding principle.

Here what Perimeter is doing:

  • Academically at-risk students take seven college credit hours during the summer before their freshman year. The retention rate for these students has increased from 50 percent to more than 80 percent.
  • Freshmen are assigned to small learning communities organized around a meta-major — a suite of courses designed to help them make an informed choice about their major — and during their first semester they take the same classes. It is easy for a 19-year-old to get lost in an institution like Perimeter, which enrolls 27,000 students, and this common experience encourages students to build connections with their classmates.
  • Research shows that freshmen are especially likely to listen to students who have been through the same experience a year or two earlier. At Perimeter, undergraduates who have done well in tough courses are embedded, during subsequent semesters, as tutors in that course.
  • Academic advisers are alerted the moment that a student flounders. Community students often lead complicated lives, as breadwinners for their families and child-minders of their siblings. Instead of waiting for these students to ask for help, advisers reach out proactively, catching problems early on. In 2020, amid the pandemic, there were more than 40,000 of these advising sessions.
  • Students who are a handful of credits shy of graduating but need a few hundred dollars to pay their bills receive no-strings grants.
  • A chatbot communicates with students through text messages, answering their questions about enrollment, registration, financial aid and the like. A random-control trial, conducted by Brown University Professor Lindsay Page, showed that students who used the chatbot completed the registration paperwork at rates 20 percent to 40 percent higher than those who didn’t.
  • Career-oriented experiences are infused throughout the curriculum.
  • Transferring to Georgia State University after earning an associate’s degree is a seamless process, and every Perimeter course receives full university credit.

“We’re relentless,” Renick explained to me. “We tell the students that we won’t let you fall.”


Four years ago, Perimeter College set out to test a bold proposition: give community college students a bells-and-whistles educational experience and graduation rates will soar. The results far exceed expectations.

Since the program’s inception, 136 students have been selected to participate in the LIFT (Learning, Income and Family Transformation) program. These are not the destined-for-success freshmen — all of them are underrepresented minorities who had gone to Atlanta’s worst high schools, and they are all eligible for Pell grants, awarded to students from low-income families.

In addition to the array of supports that all students receive, LIFT students get a tuition-free ride as well as financial help with their living expenses.

Beginning before the fall term begins, with summer classes, and continuing through graduation, LIFT students stay together in learning communities. Team-building is baked into the program — students have worked on voter registration campaigns, tutored students in local high schools and volunteered with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity.

They intern in companies and nonprofits that match their career interests. They can be peer mentors and leaders in the summer institute, helping to keep the next cohort on track. They also get a ton of “I have your back” personal support, including academic coaching and a GSU adviser to whom they can turn.

The added cost is surprisingly low — about $3,000 per student, mostly attributable to the scholarship component — and the results are extraordinary. Ninety-two percent of the LIFT students earn an associate’s degree in three years, and almost 90 percent are on the road to a B.A. They are earning the associate and bachelor’s degrees in record time — 70 percent have received both degrees in four years.

To put this accomplishment in perspective, 41 percent of undergraduates receive a bachelor’s degree in four years. The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, has one of the nation’s highest four-year graduation rates — 76 percent, which is barely better than the LIFT students.

Harvard University promises its students that an army of helpmates stands at the ready if they run into trouble. “From moving day as a freshman through graduation and beyond,” the university assures its students, “our advisers are here to help and support you at every step.”

LIFT is Harvard for the masses. Imagine the impact on the dropout problem if every college student received a LIFT-caliber education.

Last fall, Tim Renick became the executive director of Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success. The new institute plans to share its practices and test the next generation of innovations.

Let’s hope that other universities pay attention.