ATLANTA – With Georgia facing a serious shortage of workers in key industries, the state’s higher education institutions are finding creative solutions to attract, retain and graduate more skilled workers.  

The challenge has been compounded by the lingering effects of pandemic-era learning loss, said Timothy Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University (GSU). 

At GSU, the percentage of students who fail classes has increased since the pandemic, Renick said Thursday during a forum hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.  

“We’re facing a generation of students, even the success stories who made it into college, who potentially will be much more vulnerable for proceeding and getting their degree,” he said.  

Despite the challenges, Georgia State has made a serious commitment to student success that has resulted in improved graduation rates.  

GSU invested in predictive analytics about a decade ago, Renick said, and uses the data to track hundreds of markers of student success. When a student is identified as potentially struggling, the university reaches out to the student to provide support.  

It also deployed an artificial intelligence (AI) platform in 2016 to answer student questions. Renick said within the first three months, students engaged with the program 180,000 times, often at night when it typically would be difficult to connect with university staff.  

“What we’ve been able to do with some of these new technologies is at least come closer to leveling the playing field to deliver personalized attention to students at scale on a day-to-day basis,” he said.  

Georgia State also pioneered the use of retention grants, scholarships that are automatically provided to students who are close to graduating but whose HOPE scholarships have ended.  

“We know which students are making good progress and are close to graduating,” Renick said. “So we started just putting the money in their account.”  

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation replicating that program across the state.

Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success is now serving as a consultant to 42 other colleges and universities to help them develop systematic approaches to preventing students from dropping out of college. 

Like Georgia State, Gordon State College has sought to create wraparound solutions to help students graduate. The college has campuses in Barnesville, McDonough and Griffin. 

College leaders recognized the area faced a nursing shortage and entered into a partnership with the Henry County school system and Piedmont Henry Hospital to try to address the problem.  

“We got into a room and we said, ‘Let us build a pipeline that would, one, reduce the cost of a degree, two, accelerate the time to degree and, three, add a layer of stickiness … to keep the final worker local,” Gordon State President Kirk Nooks said. 

The resulting Community Innovation Partnership Program allows Henry County students to dual enroll at Gordon State and graduate with an associate degree in nursing at the same time they graduate from high school.  

Five students who complete their associate degree will also be offered guaranteed admission to Gordon State’s nursing program. Gordon State also offers scholarship support to students along the way so that financial barriers don’t prevent students from finishing their degrees.  

After students earn their associate degree, they can start working at the hospital and take advantage of employee tuition-reimbursement programs while they earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Gordon State, Nooks added.

“If everything goes according to plan, that student now becomes an employee full time and the stickiness factor is there,” he said.  

Georgia school districts and colleges should team up to develop strategic plans to get more students into higher educational institutions and the workforce in the way that Gordon State and Henry County schools worked together on the nursing program, Nooks said. 

Columbus Technical College has focused on accelerating students’ time to completion and created a plethora of options to meet working students’ needs.  

About three-quarters of Columbus Tech’s students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and the average student age is 25, President Martha Ann Todd said.

“Our students are for the most part older students, many of them supporting families or supporting themselves,” she said. “So we want to make it as easy as possible for our students to get quality training, the skills that they need, and go to work as quickly as possible.” 

Todd said that going forward, Columbus Tech will be working with local employers to shorten timeframes even further.  

For example, the college has developed a one-semester program to train certified nursing assistants and plans to develop an even shorter, four-week program.  

Columbus Tech has also developed a one-semester program to train child development associates to help meet the state’s child-care shortage. The program offers grants to people enrolled through a partnership with the Georgia Department Early Care and Learning.  

The college recently rolled out micro-credential badges that allow students to prove their proficiency in a specific skill. These have been very popular with both students and employers, Todd said.  

Todd said she would like to see other technical colleges replicate Columbus’ micro-credentialing programs as well as its “quick-start” approach to training.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.