A band marches in a homecoming parade at Georgia State University in Atlanta. (William Davis/courtesy GSU)

For now, the largest public university in Georgia remains the predictable one: the University of Georgia. But a four-year school in Atlanta is close on the heels of the flagship in Athens and is gaining widespread attention for innovative efforts to keep disadvantaged students on track toward a degree.

Georgia State University had nearly 33,000 students in fall 2014, 25,000 of them undergraduates. Its undergrad enrollment has grown 50 percent since 2000. U-Ga.’s enrollment was 35,000, including 27,000 undergrads. The flagship’s undergrad growth over 14 years was about 9 percent.

In January, Georgia State will add another 21,000 students when it absorbs a two-year institution called Georgia Perimeter College. At that point, its enrollment will surge past 50,000, making GSU the nation’s latest mega-university.

[Is bigger better? University of Central Florida, with more than 54,000 undergrads, storms higher ed.]

But what’s drawing attention beyond Atlanta is how Georgia State operates. It is a perpetual laboratory for new ideas on using “big data” to improve higher education. GSU President Mark P. Becker stopped by The Washington Post this week to explain.

Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker (Steve Thackston/courtesy GSU) Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker (Steve Thackston/courtesy GSU)

“We teach the scientific method all the time,” he said. “But very few universities actually do experiments to see what works.”

Becker said he likes to run trials with 100 or 200 students, using control groups, to see which bright ideas help the most. In one example, students who were in sudden financial jeopardy because their grades had dipped below a level required for scholarships were given small grants of up to $500 each. They were also given tutoring help from peers and training in financial skills. It worked, and GSU has scaled up the initiative. In another example, incoming students who need extra attention were guided into a summer academy to get grounded at the school before the start of the term. It worked, too.

Backing up experiments like these is a commitment to close tracking of how students are doing at each step of the way in their chosen major. Using software and expertise from Education Advisory Board, a company based in the District of Columbia, GSU has crunched a trove of data compiled over 10 years to determine patterns of success and failure.

The information gets very granular. If students aren’t getting at least a B-plus in a certain course, for example, that could set off an alarm that they might not succeed in their chosen major. Professionally trained advisers are then alerted. They meet with students to determine what happened and what is the right remedy.

“We don’t tell them they have to change their major,” Becker said. But the university will have “informed conversations” with students about strengths and weaknesses, Becker said, steering targeted help toward those who need it. To make it work, Becker had to strengthen advising systems. In the last year, he said, there were 42,000 visits between students and advisors. “We do these things proactively, rather than reacting,” he said.

Results are not miraculous. The six-year graduation rate is 53 percent, federal data show. That’s below the national average of 59 percent, and far from where Becker wants it to be. But a third of GSU undergraduates are first-generation college students, and more than half come from families with income low enough to qualify for federal Pell grants. Such students often take more time to get a diploma than those with economic advantages.

What’s notable is that the university has no gap in performance between students who are Pell-eligible and those who are not, according to new data from the Education Trust. Black, Hispanic and Asian students all graduate at slightly higher rates than white students.

[How financial need sways graduation rates, and which schools beat the odds]

It’s also worth noting that a sizable share of GSU students transfer and get a diploma elsewhere. They aren’t counted as successful in the federal graduation rate formula. If they were counted, the data would show that more than 65 percent of students who start full time at GSU get a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a Web site called Student Achievement Measure.

Becker wants to use data to help students in financial need make wise choices. “The most at-risk students have the least experience with managing money,” he said. They might not even have a checking account. How would this work? If students in need choose to enroll in a course that’s far afield from their major, they might get a doublecheck notice from an adviser. Suppose that course costs $1,000. The student might be told: “Do you know you’re using $1,000 from financial aid for a course that won’t count toward graduation?”

Becker, 56, is finishing his seventh year as president at GSU. The Washington Monthly recently named him one of the 10 most innovative college presidents. Previously, he was provost at the University of South Carolina and dean of public health at the University of Minnesota. He has also held academic appointments at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, the University of Florida and Cornell University. He has firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a first-generation student because neither of his parents went to college. His father served in the Army at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Becker, who grew up in Havre de Grace, Md., started at Harford Community College, then earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from public Towson University in Maryland and a doctorate in statistics from Pennsylvania State University.

He said he foresees the “Amazonification of higher education.” By that he means that universities will get better and better at predicting the types of courses that might interest students based on their previous choices and grades — and offer those courses to them — much as Amazon predicts what customers might want to buy based on previous purchases. (Disclosure: The Washington Post is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who is founder and chief executive of Amazon.)

“We’re not there yet,” Becker said. But his goal is for the university to give tens of thousands of students just what they need, and just when they need it. He calls it “personalizing, at scale.”

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