“What does this moment make possible?” In times of uncertainty, that’s one of the most powerful questions you can ask. Recently, higher education leaders from across the state gathered virtually to contemplate this very question in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Session three of the 2019-2020 Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute (CTLI) was intended to be an in-person convening in Knoxville focused on postsecondary persistence. Rather than meet in person during these times of social distancing, the cohort adapted and held a virtual gathering on April 13. The session included a look at how one institution transformed to better serve students and provided an opportunity for the cohort to discuss how their organizations are responding to COVID-19.

Georgia State University (GSU) is known across the nation as an institution that has transformed through using data to support student success. Dr. Tim Renick, senior vice president for student success at GSU, walked the CTLI cohort through steps taken by GSU’s leadership to leverage data to identify problems and then leverage solutions to improve postsecondary student completion.

In 2003, GSU’s graduation rate for all students was 32 percent, with graduation rates at only 22 percent for Latinos and 29 percent for African American students. In the fall of 2007, GSU experienced a number of changes — the percentage of minority students attending the university rose from 53 percent to 74 percent; the percentage of Pell-eligible students rose from 31 percent to 59 percent of the student body; the average SAT score of incoming students fell by 33 points, and public appropriations to the university fell by $40 million.

Leaders at Georgia State realized that a specialized program for minority and low-income students was not going to dramatically improve student completion — instead they needed to change the structure and design of the entire institution to better serve their students.

Rather than feel defeated by their data, GSU used the moment where their data was illuminated as an opportunity to transform their way of operating and implement student-focused reforms. They identified three major problems in their student completion pipeline and used technology to deliver needed supports to students. The university is now a model for student success; their approach to using data to identify issues and implement student-centered solutions can be replicated by other institutions.

The challenges of this pandemic present a similar opportunity for Tennessee to improve higher education. As the CTLI members reflected on Renick’s presentation during their virtual convening, they shared how their institutions and organizations are adapting in response to the pandemic. CTLI alumni also participated in a virtual gathering where their responses were discussed. Key areas of concern surfaced:

  • Disparities in technology and infrastructure put already vulnerable students at risk of falling further behind.
  • How to support students facing financial hardships, including access to basic needs like food and shelter, or those who are currently working in essential positions.
  • How to maintain a sense of normalcy for students now and prepare to meet their needs when they return to campus.

CTLI members see this pandemic as the “ah-ha moment” that can spark innovation in our higher education institutions and systems. Participants demonstrate a real pride in having the opportunity to step up to the plate and better serve students and the state. We’re already seeing evidence of these efforts. Many colleges have answered the call to manufacture personal protective equipment for health-care workers. Faculty and administrators have quickly figured out how to move classes online. Laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots are being provided to students who need them. Problems are being identified, and minds are coming together to find solutions.

CTLI is a powerful vehicle because it creates a space where leaders across sectors can connect in shared learning that is focused on improving student outcomes while also fostering networks of creativity and thought partnership that allow transformative ideas to spread.

Change is happening at a rapid pace. We don’t know what the upcoming school year will look like, and students will need additional supports navigating the unknown. No one would wish for this pandemic scenario, but it illuminates our need to improve. Tennessee is fortunate to have a network of higher education leaders who are committed to supporting students, advocating for the removal of unnecessary barriers to student success, and using every opportunity to improve higher education in our state. Through weathering this storm, higher education can become more agile at meeting students’ needs.

Kate Watts is SCORE’s postsecondary engagement manager.