COLLEGE PARK, Ga. — Shantil Jones’s Volkswagen Jetta sat marooned in the driveway of the little townhouse she shares with her mother in College Park, a mostly black suburb just south of Atlanta. The front end had been badly crumpled in an accident, and Ms. Jones did not have the money to fix it.
Her car wasn’t going anywhere. But she was.
Ms. Jones, 24, put on a cap, gown and high heels on Wednesday afternoon and walked past the hobbled Jetta on her way to graduate from Georgia State University. Her sister would be giving her a ride to the ceremony.
For decades, Georgia State was downtown Atlanta’s rather unremarkable commuter school, founded “as a night school for white businessmen,” as the college’s spokeswoman, Andrea Jones, says, and kept racially segregated until the 1960s.
But the college has been reimagined — amid a moral awakening and a raft of data-driven experimentation — as one of the South’s more innovative engines of social mobility.
By focusing on retaining low-income students, rather than just enrolling them, the college raised its graduation rate to 54 percent in 2017 from 32 percent in 2003. And for the last five years, it has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans like Ms. Jones than any other nonprofit college or university in the country.
That record is a bright spot for a state that ranks among the 10 worst for graduating black males from high school, according to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. It has also changed the educational landscape in Atlanta, home to some of the nation’s most renowned historically black colleges. They came into being because the State of Georgia used to reject or neglect black students seeking a college degree. But now a state-funded college is serving as an inspiration for them.
Obie Clayton, a sociologist at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college with a history that dates to the 1860s, said his administration has been borrowing elements of Georgia State’s undergraduate advising program, which monitors the daily progress of more than 40,000 undergraduates, uses data analysis to predict potential academic problems, and encourages advisers to swoop into students’ lives at the first sign of trouble.
The innovations have attracted visitors from hundreds of colleges eager to replicate the school’s successes. They have come from the Netherlands, from South Africa, and from across town. “I think everyone in higher education is paying attention” to Georgia State, Dr. Clayton said. “Especially at Clark Atlanta.”
Ms. Jones and her sister drove through the working-class subdivision, past rows of clean carbon-copy townhouses whose gabled roofs seemed like arrows pointing incessantly upward. Fay Jones, their mother, rode with them. She had worked her whole life as a cook, and raised her children in a single-parent household, just as her own mother had done in Montgomery, Ala.
Her daughter had decorated her mortarboard with a blank notebook and the words, “I am the author of my own life.”
“A lot of times we feel like we’re a product of our environment,” she said. “But I just feel like we have to use the tools we have around us to create our own environment.”
She decided years ago that life was not to be wasted. She learned she had stomach cancer at age 10, and did not beat the disease until age 13. Some of the friends she made in the hospital died.
Her grades in high school were good and she considered applying to Clark Atlanta, where the civil rights leaders Ralph David Abernathy Sr. and Hosea Williams had studied, but she was scared off by the private-school tuition. So she enrolled at Georgia State.
Analyzing her background, administrators there identified her as “academically at risk” and required her to enroll in a seven-week summer session, where she was introduced to the college’s tutoring, advising and financial literacy programs.
The summer session is one of several experiments that have stuck at Georgia State, part of a broader vision generally credited to the university president, Mark P. Becker, a statistician who began his academic career at a community college, and Timothy M. Renick, a religious studies professor whose job title is now senior vice president for student success.
When Mr. Becker took office in 2009, the college seemed adrift. “There was a period when Georgia State lacked an identity,” Mr. Renick said.
He said Georgia State found its “moral compass” in the fact that Atlanta’s working class had been hammered by recession, producing rising numbers of applicants who met the federal definition of low-income students.
“We really became comfortable with saying we’re not about being the next University of Georgia or Chapel Hill,” Mr. Renick said. “Rather than trying to find a way to get students other than the ones that enroll at Georgia State and then find a way to serve them, why don’t we just find new ways to support the students who we do enroll, and who come to us in great numbers?”
To prevent dropouts, Georgia State has developed a series of linked programs meant to provide the kind of safety net for poor students that wealthier students usually get from their families. For example, in 2011 the administration began disbursing microgrants of a few hundred dollars at a time to help students deal with unpaid tuition and fee balances, citing a California State University finding that only 30 percent of students who stop attending for a semester ever graduate.
Shantil Jones met her adviser, Christopher Almond, at the summer program, and he monitored, counseled and prodded her for the rest of her college career. Advisers like Mr. Almond start each morning checking to see if any of their undergraduates have tripped one of the 800 alerts that could signal potential academic trouble, based on reams of previous student data. It could be something as small as a single poor quiz grade.
Ms. Jones welcomed the help. Few in her family had ever been to college. She was working up to 20 hours a week at part-time jobs, and her bus ride to campus took an hour.
When she faltered in prerequisites for an accounting degree, Mr. Almond helped her find a new major, criminal justice. When her grade-point average dipped and she lost her state-funded Hope Scholarship, he helped her figure out ways to try to get it back again (she never did). The school also gave her several microgrants over the years.
Her phone is still full of her adviser’s emails: “I checked your grades as soon as I got to work,” Mr. Almond wrote in May 2015. “Congratulations on an outstanding job. I am very proud of you.”
Mr. Almond, 53, is a soft-spoken man who graduated in 1990 from Morehouse College. His mother was a postal worker, and his father was not in the picture when he was a child. His own journey from matriculation to graduation was a complicated one that took eight years.
“This is personal for me,” he said. “It’s one of those rare things in life where you get to work for an organization whose mission and vision is so much aligned with your own personal mission.”
Georgia State’s graduation ceremony took place in the Atlanta Braves’ former stadium, bought by the college in 2016 and converted into a football field festooned in royal blue, the school color.
Ms. Jones took her place with others from her graduating class — strangers, mostly, from an array of backgrounds, some with stories that could be the plots of novels. Dulce Arizmendi, 22, earned a business degree even though her mother, the only parent who raised her, was deported to Mexico in her junior year (“Gracias mami,” her cap declared). Abraham Chung, 28, lived in Georgia until he was 5, then moved to South Korea after his father was the victim of an Atlanta jewelry-store robbery. When Mr. Chung returned at age 17, he had forgotten most of his English, and it took him a decade to complete a finance degree.
After Ms. Jones walked across the stage, she could not say what her long-term future might hold: Criminal justice was one of many interests. But she was sure that good things would come, and the data appears to be on her side. According to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, the median income for Georgia State graduates at age 34 is $38,900.
For now, she has landed a part-time job managing a UPS Store, to start later in May. But how will she drive to work without the Jetta?
“I don’t know,” she replied. “But I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to get there.”
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