Georgia State bridging lower-income students to a brighter future

Lamiyah Mussaji is an undergraduate student currently participating in the CASA program. She studies social behavior of mice in Dr. Petrulis’ lab. Photo Illustration by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

Correction: A version of this story that ran in print on Aug. 28 incorrectly stated the Honors College was founded in 2010. It was founded in 2012.

Georgia State is a shining example that universities can erode achievement gaps between low-income minorities and more privileged demographics. Today, even though Georgia State is enrolling a higher proportion of low-income and minority students than in the past, the university has increased its graduation rate by 22 points, from 31 to 53 percent of students graduating, using various success initiatives within the past 15 years. In conjunction with the establishment of the Center for Achievement for Students and Alumni (CASA), the founding of the Honors College and the erection of the Petit and Research science centers, the face of Georgia State has radically transformed within the past two decades.

As recently as 2003, less than one-third of Georgia State students actually completed their degree. Research showed that students frequently couldn’t finish their degrees because of a lack of funds and plummeting morale due to poor grades on introductory coursework. To combat these problems, Georgia State established Graduation and Progression Success (GPS) advising that monitors every student for risk factors. When issues, such as a student making a C or lower in a major-related introductory course, occur, their advisor reaches out to the student to remedy the problem. Setting up Supplemental Instruction classes helped students also do better and remain in their necessary courses.

For students who struggle financially, Georgia State has begun to offer microgrants for students who are at risk of being dropped from their classes just because of a few hundred dollars. Over 80 percent of students who receive the grant remain in school or graduate the next year. Microgrants help both the university and students; when students drop their classes, Georgia State loses the money from the grants and scholarships that those students received.

Because Georgia State has been successful in dramatically increasing graduation rates, they have opted to focus on students’ post-Bachelor’s education. Enter: CASA.


Students who graduate from Georgia State, based on rough estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse, entered programs and earned doctorate, medical and law degrees at rates of less than 3 percent between 2005 and 2016. CASA, launched in the fall of 2017, is designed to encourage students to apply for and enter advanced degree programs by providing students and alumni resources. These resources include professional development workshops, research assistantships and Graduate Records Examinations (GRE) prep classes.

“Assisting with research in Dr. Petrulis’s lab through the CASA program has allowed me to use the knowledge learned in my Neuroscience courses and apply them into a laboratory setting, which is extremely valuable to my professional development,” Lamiyah Mussaji, a neuroscience student at Georgia State, said about her experience. Mussaji hopes to apply to medical school and recommends that her peers who want to get an advanced degree apply to CASA.

Kyle Frantz, the program director and The Signal’s Faculty of the Year in 2018, said, “CASA is part of the next big step for Georgia State. The whole Georgia State community has done a lot of work for student success to the point of graduation…But what do they do next?”

“That’s where the CASA is coming in, to help our students, see the potential they have to lead the nation and the world, to help faculty and graduate students understand the significant role they play in influencing students’ to awaken to their own potential, and then to provide the support on the ground to allow both of those populations to work together more effectively and fill in gaps that other departments don’t fill,” Frantz said.

Frantz emphasized that CASA is designed for Georgia State alumni and everyone at Georgia State, including Perimeter students.

“We want students to feel like they can influence what we’re doing by giving constructive feedback on the events we’re running, voicing needs that they see that we’re not addressing, and help shape it into their CASA, because it’s all about the students,” Frantz said.


Georgia State has also developed programs for those who don’t feel challenged with traditional classwork. The Honors College, founded in 2012 by Dean Larry Berman, is just one example of what the university is using to entice exceptionally gifted high school graduates, some of whom have rejected offers to Emory, University of Pennsylvania, New York University and other prestigious schools to attend Georgia State.

Once students are in the Honors College, they are granted access to individual scholarships, mentorships, paid research opportunities and advanced coursework.

Berman told The Signal that students are provided “small classes, a community, their own Honors College advisors and all the things you would expect from a small liberal arts school,” but at a large research university. He stressed the point that the Honors College helps prevent “brain drain,” or the phenomenon of high-achieving Georgia students leaving the state to enroll in college elsewhere.

“I’ve always believed … that the Honors College represents the finest of what an academic institution can offer. If you look at the classes, everything from the digital literacy initiatives, the fact that our students get laptops … to our freshman seminars, to our upper-division classes that they take in the core, to the ability to write a thesis—these are what public institutions should be doing,” Berman said. The Honors College is also taking part in new teaching proposals that will improve the way students are taught over the next decade.

Already, they are seeing success in their models. Berman said when students take advantage of the college’s resources, they consistently go on to receive competitive national scholarships and are accepted at top-tier universities.


Another apparent change at Georgia State that marks its evolution as a reputable state university is the construction of the Petit Science Center and the Research Science Center. Peter Petit, a now-controversial Georgia State alum, is the namesake for the buildings that fundamentally altered scientific research at Georgia State.

Now that there are new, modern facilities for researchers to use, it follows that research productivity has ballooned. In 2014, researchers at Georgia State were awarded over $80 million in external grants. Georgia State was also one of 10 universities to be recognized for its “notable increase” in National Institutes of Health funding since 2000.

“Research funding has skyrocketed in a time when a lot of universities’ funding has either gone down or has scraped by to maintain funding. The quality of students is on the rise – people learning about Georgia State and all that it has to offer makes it an even more attractive place for an even broader swath of students in the state of Georgia and around the nation. Not to mention our international collaborations that bring in great students from around the world,” Frantz said.

The instigation of Georgia State’s new developments may have evolved independently, but their successes and growth are interconnected. Together, these innovations help make Georgia State a noteworthy university with unique opportunities to offer.

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