During an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier in 2015, Robert Morris University President Christopher Howard noted that seeing African American students through to graduation is an ongoing battle, which he summed up by noting that, “These kids are one phone call from home away from dropping out.”

So it’s hardly surprising that he was among the supporters of the Pittsburgh Promise bringing Georgia State University Vice-Provost Timothy Renick to town for a March 31 luncheon presentation to administrators from its partner colleges and universities.

Renick told the packed house at the Duquesne Club that as his university in downtown Atlanta began attracting more low-income, urban and minority students in the early 2000s, it also began to see lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates. In 2003, the university’s graduation rates for African Americans was 25.6 percent. This coincided with a $40 million loss in appropriations and applicants with SAT scores that were 28 points lower.

“So we had people saying, ‘the high schools aren’t doing their job getting these kids ready,’” Renick said. “But some asked if we were the problem, and if so what can we control.”

It turned out that by using predictive analytics and putting data to better use, they could control quite a bit without spending a lot. Between 2009-10 and 2014-15, the number of African Americans graduates increased 82 percent, from 1,001 to 1,825; the graduation rate for Pell grant recipients rose 93 percent, from 1,298 to 2,501.

The key was retention, and improving that started before enrollees even arrived, because some didn’t even do that.

Some didn’t fill out the federal financial aid application correctly, some that did failed to respond to the return verification request, some were not aware that Georgia requires proof of immunization for certain diseases, and still others had failed to take placement exams or register for classes.

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