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Dr. Tim Renick Shares GSU’s Playbook for Eliminating Equity Gaps

Episode 38

December 8, 2020 34 minutes


Dr. Tim Renick began working to raise graduation rates at Georgia State University in 2008. One of the biggest problems he faced was a lack of reliable data that could help his team decide where to focus their efforts to generate the biggest bang for their buck.

They discovered early on that an important key to their work would be the ability to analyze data to identify struggling students quickly and divert finite advising resources accordingly. This prompted his search for a technology partner and led to an enduring and effective collaboration with EAB.

Dr. Renick talks with EAB’s Tom Sugar about the evolution of his work and about how GSU has completely eliminated gaps in graduation rates by race, ethnicity, or income level—for six years straight.

The two also discuss Dr. Renick’s role as executive director of Georgia State’s new National Institute for Student Success, as well as his involvement with EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity.


00:13 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish and this is Office Hours. How do you get more students to graduate? It’s a question many schools have been asking for decades now, but it’s also a question for which there’s not always a clear answer, and why? Because to improve graduation rates, you need to get the right answers to the right student at the right time, and to do that, you need data, reliable data. Tim Renick realized that back in 2008 when he began working to increase Georgia State’s grad rates, but also knew that you need the ability to analyze that data to identify struggling students so you can divert some of your limited resources to those students. On today’s episode, Tim joins EAB’s Tom Sugar to talk about Georgia State’s search for a technology partner that eventually led to EAB, and how the long and effective partnership there evolved into the complete elimination of gaps in education rates by race, ethnicity, income levels at Georgia State for six straight years. They’ll also talk about Tim’s new role as the director of Georgia State’s new National Institute for Student Success, and the work Tim and Tom are currently doing with EAB’s Moonshot for Equity. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:23 Tom Sugar: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Tom Sugar, Vice President for Partnerships, and I am absolutely thrilled to have the honor and distinction of being one of the first people to interview the new Executive Director and Founder of the Institute for Student Success at Georgia State, our friend, the legend, Tim Renick. Tim, welcome to EAB podcast.

01:51 Dr. Tim Renick: Thanks, Tom. Always good to talk to you.

01:53 TS: Always good. My goodness, I think back on how long this journey has been for both of us. First for me at Complete College America when we were just getting started back in 2009, and you engaging deeply in the student success work at about that same time frame. It’s been quite a road, hasn’t it?

02:12 DR: Yeah. I started leading Georgia State’s student success efforts in 2008, so just about the same time, and our paths crossed not long after that, and we’ve kind of been joined at the hip ever since.

02:24 TS: That’s absolutely true. And I remember in those early days how very quickly it became obvious to us at Complete College America that something very special was happening at Georgia State, and that’s where I wanna start actually. ‘Cause sometimes when I’m talking about where we’re headed next, I reflect back on those days, Tim, and I joke with people that there were a lot of rotten vegetables thrown in my direction in 2009 and 2010, because I discovered that a lot of people really didn’t even know their own data. And even when they’d give us the data at Complete College America and we’d slice and dice it and report it back to them to focus on remedial students or part-time students, or talk about time to degree, their immediate response was, “Well, that can’t be right.” You must have had similar experiences. Can you tell me a story like that?

03:14 DR: Yeah, I had experiences at the beginning in kind of the voice crying in the wilderness at times going out on the road, invited to speak on campuses or at conferences, and the audience being extremely small, fellow sojourners trying to find others to get a hold of the story. But as you mentioned people questioning the data, what comes to mind immediately is not what happened in 2008, 2009, but what began to happen five or six years later, because five or six years later, we began to first close and then eliminate equity gaps among our students at Georgia State. And we’re very proud to say even amid the pandemic, we will have our sixth straight year where we have no equity gaps based on race, ethnicity, or income level. Our black, our Latinx, and our Pell students for six years in a row now graduated at or above the rate of the student body overall. And I began sharing some of those data at conferences, and at times I was told that I must be lying, that that can’t be the case.

04:26 DR: And the president of our university, President Becker, has the same experience, the same recollection early on. We’d report on some of these results and being questioned. I gave a keynote for the Cal State system, and this wasn’t five, six years ago, this was about two years ago. Very nice, big, enthusiastic audience, but the first question from the crowd was a faculty member, a philosopher, from one of the Cal State schools who wanted to see my evidence and my data. Now, happily, as you know, Tom, we do nothing at Georgia State if we don’t collect data, so I had plenty of data to send to him and to share with him and so forth. But I think there’s a reason for that questioning, because if it can’t be done, then I don’t have to feel responsible for the fact that my campus, my institution, my college, my university has these gaping equity gaps. If someone, or now increasingly some group of campuses, begin to make headway in this space, then the responsibility begins to be on me, and I think that’s just where the responsibility needs to be, but I think there is a level of discomfort about that.

05:39 TS: Well, once they get past the data denial, the next place they often go is, “Okay, so you’re making it easier for them to graduate, aren’t you?” Or, “Okay, you’ve become more selective, haven’t you?” Or, “Okay… ” How do you deal with the next layer of excuse making?

05:58 DR: Well, that’s a great point. You’re right. And I can anticipate the kind of objections that are gonna come up, happily not from the majority, there’s always a group of skeptics and will to undermine these kind of results, but I’m familiar enough now with what these objections are. Your SAT scores are going up. No, our SAT scores have actually gone down 30 points over the last decade. You have more money and resources. Well, we’re now… We’ve lost $65 million in state appropriations over the last decade. Oh, your faculty are different, your students are different. So I’ve shaped my presentations often around those objections, anticipating them before they can be raised. And as you may know from hearing me speak a number of times, my first slides are all about, here’s what Georgia State’s demographics look like. We doubled the number of Pell students we enroll over the last decade. We’ve moved from a majority white institution to an MSI, minority-serving institution, that’s now 75% non-white. Our SAT scores are down, our state appropriations are down. We are like you in many ways, and if we’re not like you, we may be worse off, at least from an objective demographic perspective. And so…

07:12 TS: It’s almost like you could say, “When we started having success, we decided to make it even harder for us to succeed.”

07:19 DR: In all honesty, I think that’s one of the reasons why Georgia State has gotten some attention, because we’re not Michigan, we’re not Chapel Hill. If we were Chapel Hill or Michigan and really doing great things, everybody would say it’s because you have wonderful students and incredible resources. Well, Georgia State has a pretty middling endowment, has very low tuition by national standards, has a very diverse student body, has increased access and so forth, so it does diffuse a lot of those objections, and I think there’s a real value to that in the national conversation.

07:53 TS: There absolutely is. And I think that the more people can see themselves in you, the more likely we are to try to replicate. There is one other excuse that I’ve stumbled on recently, Tim, and I hope you don’t find it uncomfortable to answer this question, but people like to say to me, “Well, you know, he is in the heart of Atlanta. And so the ecosystem within which he is thriving is a very diverse one, it’s more likely that students are gonna feel a sense of belonging. African Americans are in positions of authority in politics and government and business, and so it’s sort of a special place, Atlanta. And so only that’s why we can have that kind of success.” How do you answer that point?

08:36 DR: Yeah, what I would say is when we started these efforts not so long ago, our graduation rates for African American males was 18%. At the time we had, and we still do have, an African American male mayor, well, now we have an African American female mayor in Atlanta, but we have had that leadership in place, this has been a diverse city, our students were foundering. They were really, really struggling. Overall, our graduation rates for black students were around 22%, but for African-American males, 18%. So we’ve more than tripled that graduation rate, and we haven’t tripled it because Atlanta has changed in its basic nature and its leadership structure. John Lewis was there when we started these efforts, and John Lewis, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but a huge, huge booster all along the way. That hasn’t changed. What has changed is the way we do our business on a day-to-day basis at Georgia State. And as I often say, it starts with us. We are the problem. We’re a big part of the problem. Until we admit we’re a big part of the problem, then we’re not gonna come to the solution.

09:42 TS: I’ve always loved that part of your speeches. It’s always that moment where you can almost detect a gasp in the crowd, and when you focus people on that simple proposition that you’re not gonna be successful until you accept the fact that students aren’t broken, the university and its systems are, and tackle that. Let me unpack another piece of your story that I think is important, because I’ve watched you almost beg people to pick up your baton and carry forward the strategies that you have certainly proven time and time again, and to replicate them on their own campuses. And so I’m trying to get them to understand and to take a little bit of the… Well, take away your Superman cape for a moment, Tim, because I think the more people that see that they can follow in your footsteps, the more likely they are to do it. So you’re most famous for, of course, eliminating equity gaps year after a year after year, proving that can be done. And as I say, essentially blowing up what is considered a standard of success in the college completion movement, it must be the elimination of equity gaps now. It’s not enough to simply narrow those gaps. But when you began the work at Georgia State, the very early stages, that necessarily wasn’t the fixed goal that you had. There was some moment along the way where you discovered, “Oh my goodness, that’s within our reach now.” Can you tell me about that aha moment?

11:19 DR: Yeah. Our efforts started much more modestly, and at least in the very first couple of years, we had probably not the audacity to say that we would eliminate equity gaps. What we wanted to do is try to begin moving the needle in the right direction. Our resources were so limited, limited personnel, very much limited budget, that what we began to do was really rely on the data. The reason data became so important for me and for Georgia State and our Student Success efforts is not because we had the luxury of data teams and so forth. We did not. We had basically one FTE in student data at the time. But because we were so short on resources, we wanted to dedicate those resources in the most efficient way possible. And we couldn’t do everything, so the idea was we target our efforts and our limited resources in some areas that will make the biggest impact. So that’s how we began kind of to build. And some of our early efforts were so fundamental. When I took over this job in 2008, one of the first challenges I faced was even being able to determine what majors students were taking at Georgia State.

12:36 DR: We were using a nationally-known platform that is very flexible with regard to how you enter information about student majors, and it allows you to enter biology as a student’s major, but if you transpose a couple of letters, then that student’s major becomes not biology, but the misspelling of biology. Nobody had been monitoring this for a decade, and what we had were dozens and then hundreds of students who were kind of slipping between the cracks because when you collected data on the biology majors, you were missing out on all these other students who might have been entered as biological sciences or biological sciences abbreviated or some misspelling and so forth.

13:16 TS: Incredible.

13:18 DR: So one of my first projects was just to create a system-wide method for staff across campus to enter data into the major field within our student information system. That’s how the work really began, and that was the level of what we were working at. So, again, some people look at what we’ve done at Georgia State and they shake their heads and say, “Oh yeah, you can do that at Georgia State ’cause you have all this data capability and so forth.” We had nothing. We had nothing a decade ago. We built this all up from scratch, and we did it with very limited resources and very limited external support.

13:57 TS: That’s absolutely the case. And now we’re asking people to replicate what we’ve learned, and they get the opportunity to do that with all these advanced tools, with all of this insightful technology. I know that EAB played an important role in the early stages at Georgia State, but it was at your urging. You were looking for a solution. It was very much a collaboration in developing the predictive analytics aspects of it because none of that existed. So it was a part of your origin story.

14:31 DR: Yeah, I’m a religious studies faculty member by trade, so for 20 years I taught full-time in the classroom comparative religions and religious ethics. And sometimes I think that the way we connected with EAB initially and really got down the predictive analytics path was fate, because my good colleague, Allison Calhoun-Brown, and I were at an educational conference, and we were trying to find a way to use our advising resources in a more productive and targeted fashion. This would have been in 2011. We had appointments set-up with three or four vendors in the space at the time, and at the time, most of the advising products out there were just glorified calendar creation systems. They helped the advisors set their schedules and so forth. We knew what we wanted. We wanted a way out of our, at the time, 30,000-plus students to find the ones who needed help because we didn’t have enough advisors to go around, we didn’t have enough advisors to meet with every student every semester and so forth, so could we find a system to identify when a student really needed our help?

15:45 DR: We had met with two vendors and felt very discouraged. We went to lunch with a third vendor. We were walking down the stairs after leaving that lunch, also a little disheartened because what was offered was nothing that we had in mind, and we ran into Ed Venit. And we knew Ed, we had used EAB’s services from a research perspective, we began talking and Ed said that they were working on something at EAB very similar to what we had in mind. We said, “We’re all in because we’re exhausting all the options out there.” There was no demo, no product to see, we signed on, and it was a little over six months later, it was probably more like eight months, August 2012, that we went live with what, through various iterations, has become Navigate.

16:43 TS: Yeah, that’s a great story. And one of the things I love about how EAB came to the work is we were part of the Advisory Board, and they had a whole healthcare practice and research and technology, and I always thought that it was just exactly the right way to think about students, especially those most often left behind. How do we coordinate care from around the whole institution, financial aid, student affairs, what have you, and knit them all together in a collaborative, holistic, coordinated care network like you’d find in a hospital almost. And clearly that level of coordination is vitally important. Well, we could talk all day, but please go ahead.

17:24 DR: I was gonna say, and that has never ended, that goal that you have in mind. So it’s not like you turn a switch and then now you’ve got it all coordinated. Every day we’re meeting and working with new data to say, “Here’s something we didn’t coordinate.” And it’s almost like gallows humor, but we sometimes laugh about the fact that we’re still making these huge mistakes when we think we’re so far along in the pathway. But each year, there’s something new that we’re doing and there’s some new problem that we’re tackling. We got better with advising the students once they got with us, found that we had huge trouble with summer melt, we were losing all these students before they got to us. Had to develop new systems, some with the help of EAB, to help the students through that process and so forth. But now that with this pivot to online learning with Covid, we’ve got a whole new set of data points and a whole new set of ways in which we’re failing our students, and so we need to find ways to intervene in those…

18:26 TS: The journey does not end, and you’re sort of relentlessly pursuing the goal. And I know that you wanna even make more progress, for example, in eliminating equity gaps in your STEM programs, is just one example of an area where work needs to continue. And you have to adopt the attitude of a relentless reformer. And you just continue to innovate. And I certainly take my hat off to you for that. One of my earliest memories of you, Tim, was when we, Stan Jones and I, and Complete College America visited the campus, and you were giving us a little tour. And you were just so excited to share with us this early finding you had in nursing programs. Do you remember that story? Do you remember that moment?

19:10 DR: Yeah, I do that. This was an early challenge, and it began with nursing and then we took it to other programs at Georgia State. But it basically evidences the design problem we have in higher education. Nursing, for generations, has had basically the same model for onboarding Bachelor of Nursing Students, so called BSN students. Which is, you go through a two-year pre-program and then you’re allowed into the nursing program itself at the end of the second year, really the beginning of your junior year in college. It’s a nice model when it comes to academic structure. You have the students prove themselves in the introductory courses and then see how they do once they’re in the program itself.

20:00 DR: But what we found when we looked at our data is it was a disaster for our students who didn’t get into the BSN. The students who went through the rigorous process and got in were graduating at very high rates, much higher than the student body, overall. The students who were in the pre-program but didn’t get into the BSN, were dropping out at almost record rates. The graduation rates were literally around 20%. And we had created the problem. We enroll mostly low-income students at Georgia State. They have very limited eligibility for scholarships, like state scholarships, the HOPE Scholarship, for Pell Grants, for loans and so forth.

20:36 DR: And what we were doing for 80% of the pre-nursing students is exhausting two years of their eligibility and then saying, “Too bad. You need to pick another major and, in most cases,, almost start over again with the courses you need to begin taking.” Not surprisingly, a lot of those students ran out of resources before they finished the second program. So, yeah. It was a proud moment when we got the nursing faculty into a discussion to say, “Let’s look at the data. Let’s see if we can design this in a better way.” At first, the pushback was very strong. “We know how to teach nursing students, we know what they’re required to take.” And we had to point out, “We’re not telling you to have them take any different courses, even have them take the courses in a different sequence. Let’s just use this thing called predictive analytics to look at the courses they take in their first semester or two, and make a judgment then about who’s gonna be successful in the nursing program, rather than waiting for them to get through a second year of course work, which for some of the students will be worthless to the degree program they’re ultimately expected to pursue.

21:44 DR: So I’m happy to say, and I just saw updated numbers this week from our nursing program, the graduation rates for our pre-nursing students who don’t get into nursing are way up. And the graduation rates for the students who are accepted in the nursing program are up as well. It’s a win-win situation, but it’s another instance where the problem is ours. It’s not the students. We’ve designed a pathway that leads a lot of these students to a dead end. And that’s on us, not on the students.

22:12 TS: Such a wonderful example of the sort of innovation we were talking about before, and your relentless discovery. Let’s turn the page now with the time we have left and talk about what comes next. You’ve taken on this new position as the first Executive Director of the Institute for Student Success, and I’m so excited about that. I don’t know how many times I’ve said, “Well, Tim. How can you possibly do your job and have all these people who visit you constantly at Georgia State and do all these tours?” So you’ve figured out a way to streamline it into a better delivery model. Tell me a little bit about the Institute and how you hope it will work. I’m sure it’s your latest effort to try to get folks to replicate these designs and discoveries on their own campuses.

22:57 DR: Yeah, Tom. One of the lessons we’ve learned over the last few years is what we’re doing at Georgia State is transferable. It does work at other places. That it’s not just some alchemy that is in the air in downtown Atlanta, that this is something that we can replicate. And over the last few years, we’ve had literally hundreds, in fact, 500 different campuses work with us and teams to Georgia State, often for a single day. And some walk away saying, “Well, it didn’t change. We came for a whole day and surprise, surprise, 30, 40 years’ worth of our systems didn’t magically change overnight.” But we’ve also had the honor of working with some campuses in a much more concerted way. We’ve done this through research grants. We’ve done this through other sorts of projects, and sometimes just through the wills of institutional leaders who’ve themselves come to Georgia State multiple times. We’ve had some Presidents bring one team and then come back a month later with another team and then invite me to come and talk, or advising leads like Carol Cohen and bring Allison Calhoun-Brown in and so forth.

24:05 DR: And what we’ve seen in those instances where there’s that kind of commitment and a recognition, this is gonna take a little time, is significant transformation and really important transformation. In fact, one of the winners of the Aspen prize this past year, Indian River State College in Florida campus, we’ve worked with for several years. Two recent winners of the APLU Prize for best improving graduation rates, Middle Tennessee State, which is a EAB partner, HBCU outside of Baltimore, they have both been long terms kind of collaborators, and they’ve come to campus multiple times and worked with us as well. And then maybe the best example was handed to us by the state of Georgia a few years ago, because the largest community college in Georgia, Georgia Perimeter College, was largely failing.

24:53 DR: They had huge budget challenges, and they had a graduation rate hovering around 7% for their associate degree seeking students. And so about a little under five years ago, the state of Georgia… the euphemism is consolidated us with Georgia Perimeter College. So Georgia Perimeter became one of the colleges within Georgia State. And what we’ve done incrementally over the last four and a half years is roll out all the programs that we introduced at the downtown campus of Georgia State. The predictive analytics, the EAB Navigate, the proactive advising, but also the learning communities, the chat bot, the micro grants, all the things that we’re noted for. Now, mind you, it took time. This is a big college, 18,000 students across five campuses, but we’ve been rolling these out incrementally.

25:48 DR: We did not raise the tuition one penny. We do not raise the admission standards. This is a completely open access campus. So what’s happened? It’s been four and a half years. We’ve tripled the graduation rates overall. On the day of consolidation, white students were graduating at a rate two and a half times the rate as black students. This fall, black students, Latinx students, Pell students are all graduating at or above the rate of the student body overall. The learning curve has been much, much quicker than it was for Georgia State’s main campus because we’ve got these systems in place and we’ve got this know-how now. So what the National Institute for Student Success is dedicated to doing is helping other campuses figure out how they can improve their own internal processes, remove obstacles to student success and find tested, implement tested, proven means of serving the students in a better fashion.

26:51 DR: There are lots of things we can do in student success, and I think they’re all important programs. And we support them. College advising core one goal is to help students better transition from high school to college. There are programs… Michelle Obama has led one to get better connections between low-income students and the most elite colleges and so forth. What this institute is dedicated to doing is uncovering the barriers that we create as institutions, as colleges, universities to our own student success and helping to remove them. And I think it’s a very, very scalable and affordable and even revenue-positive sort of approach that one can take.

27:35 TS: Congratulations on this. It’s such an important moment in the college completion movement, and I know you’re gonna have lots of customers. And your Georgia Perimeter consolidation, as you say, really represents a really key concept, I think, that higher education needs to increasingly adopt. Which is, a more regional approach to how we deliver higher education. I’ve seen, and you have, too, so many examples where the community colleges get together in their silo and they talk about their reforms and the four-year schools get in their silo and the private schools, in their silo… They’re all doing good work, but they’re not doing the work in the way that students think about how they should do their work. A pathway for a student… Perimeter isn’t from Perimeter’s front door to Perimeter’s back door. It’s from Perimeter’s front door to Georgia State’s back door.

28:25 TS: And so how do we make that experience as seamless and common as it possibly can be? Well, in excess of just ordinary articulation agreements. And this is where I wanna wrap up our conversation today, Tim, and it’s just another piece of the work that we’re gonna be doing together over the next few years. That’s the Moon Shot for Equity, EAB’s big national initiative to seek out seven regions in the country to support and facilitate. They’re accomplishing the goal of eliminating equity gaps within their institutions and between their institutions before the decade is out, as JFK would like to say, before 2030. And you… I’m just actually honored that you have agreed to be one of the national advisors to the Moon Shot for Equity, which has a very… I think about what you just described, very highly structured approach. Applies what we’ve learned, does that on a regional basis. Could you summarize why you think a Moon Shot for Equity kind of approach could be an important contribution to this phase of the college completion movement?

29:35 DR: Sure. Just like the original Moon Shot, we could have tried to have a Moon Shot in the 1930s or 40s, and it probably wouldn’t have led to very much. It took the development of know-how and technology to facilitate it. I think we have the ability now to do things we couldn’t have done even a decade ago. And I think Georgia State has been the beneficiary of this. You think about some of the design problems we have in higher education. One of the design problems is, we send the most privileged and academically able students to the campuses with the greatest resources. They’re the ones… The most elite students are the ones that end up at Harvard and Stanford and Duke and so forth. And we send the students with the least resources and the most shaky academic background to the community colleges or to the big MSIs with high student to faculty ratio and so forth.

30:31 DR: One thing that EAB has done, and that Georgia State has done more broadly, is to level the playing field by being able to deliver more personalized services to students on a day-to-day basis. What makes a Duke or a Harvard or a Princeton special is the fact you get this individualized attention. Georgia State is now 54,000 students. We’re not gonna be able to deliver individualized attention, especially with our budget cuts and our state appropriations. What we can do, though, is leverage data and technology and analytics and chatbots and AI to deliver these kind of personal supports and services to students. And once we do so, they make a disproportionately beneficial impact upon the most under-served students. These are the students who lack that invisible support system, the parents, the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles who have gone to college and can help them navigate a financial aid crisis or an academic issue, or push them back on path when they’re stopping or dropping out. And these kind of approaches have the ability to do just that.

31:42 DR: So I’m very optimistic about the Moon Shot because I’m very optimistic that this is the time that is right in order to say, “We can do something more and better than we could do in the past.” The skeptics here will say to us, “Well, people have been trying to do this for decades and decades and nobody’s been successful.” And I’ll say about Georgia State, “People had been trying to do it for decades and decades at Georgia State, and no one was successful.” But the time is different and our capabilities are different. And we have efficiencies, and we have incentives that we have now that we didn’t have even a few years ago. And I think campuses recognize that their financial future depends on their doing their job in a morally responsible way, which is delivering on the promise that they’ve made to their students.

32:30 TS: Hey, man. I’d like to say that we know more today about eliminating equity gaps in higher education than they knew about going to the moon and they chose to do it, right? So sometimes it just begins with having the confidence and courage to say, “Now’s the time, now’s the time. If we’re all in, we commit all of our creativity, our intelligence, our passion, and our learned knowledge or acquired knowledge to a task that we focus on together.” And so I think it’s an exciting, exciting moment for the college completion movement. And Tim, I just wanna thank you on behalf of all our listeners for your tremendous and sustained leadership. Congratulations again on this new, even more influential position that you’re going to hold. I cannot wait to work with you going forward on the Moon Shot for equity and other things. And I just wanna express our gratitude for joining us today.

33:33 DR: Thanks, Tom. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

33:35 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week when we talk how to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow with familiar EAB voice, Carla Hickman, along with Rob Sentz, the Chief Innovation Officer at Emsi, the labor market data company. Until then, for Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

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