LISTEN: One Georgia college administrator says the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action should serve as a call for college and universities to fix post-admission problems. GPB's Orlando Montoya speaks with Timothy Renick of Georgia State University.

Timothy Rennick is shown seated in this posed photo.

Timothy Rennick leads Georgia State University's National Institute for Student Success.

Credit: Orlando Montoya / GPB Photo

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college enrollment.  But Georgia’s public colleges and universities haven’t used race as a determinant in admissions for many years. That doesn’t mean they aren’t promoting diversity by other means.

One Georgia college administrator, Timothy Renick of Georgia State University’s National Institute for Student Success, said the ruling should serve as a call for college and universities to look in the mirror to fix post-admission problems.  He calls this approach both effective and politically popular on both sides of the aisle.

He spoke with GPB’s Orlando Montoya.

Orlando Montoya: What was your reaction to the court’s ruling?

Timothy Renick: Well, I think what it does is intensify the need for the work of this institute that I’m currently directing. What the institute works on doing is helping, especially those schools that have below average graduation rates, improve their graduation rates and reduce equity gaps between success rates for different populations of students. And what the Supreme Court ruling will, in effect, do is displace students from more elite institutions to minority-serving institutions, four-year publics, community colleges, HBCUs and so forth — institutions that historically have, on average, had lower graduation rates. So, the best and most practical response we can deliver is, let’s help those institutions improve so that the students will not suffer.

Orlando Montoya: And so what advice would you give to those colleges and universities that have been using race as one of many factors in college admissions?

Timothy Renick: Georgia State in the 1960s was still segregated. It was still a whites-only campus. And now we’re one of the largest institutions enrolling Black students in the country. For six years in a row, we’ve graduated more Black students than any other college or university in the United States. So, you can become diverse even in a context of no affirmative action. Our most potent tool over the last 15 years has been our success. The reality is that if you’re a Black student, a Hispanic student, a white student or low-income or middle upper-income, your chances of graduating from Georgia State are strong but they’re equal. They are equitable. So, our Black, Hispanic and low-income students have all graduated at or above the rate of the student body for the last seven years from Georgia State. Word gets around.

Orlando Montoya: Do you give preference to students with lower socioeconomic statuses and how does that impact who gets selected?

Timothy Renick: We do not. As [with] all of the schools in the University System of Georgia, our admissions is blind with regard to race and blind with regard to economic background. We do not weigh those considerations. But again, our student body is one of the largest with low-income students in the United States. About 60% of our students are low-income. So what we want to do is create institutions that can succeed with students from diverse backgrounds rather than working on maneuvering the front end of the process so that different types of students enter. What is critical across all the sectors in post-secondary is that we find ways to succeed with students. Most of these students are not at the institutions currently that are going to be impacted by the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. We need to be better at succeeding with students where they are.

Orlando Montoya: From your experience, can you talk about some of the specific barriers students of color face when trying to stay in school?

Timothy Renick: I transitioned from the classroom. I was a full-time professor here at Georgia State. What was disturbing is, I would see students who were equally qualified to succeed in life, some of whom would go on to do wonderful things. We’ve sent students off to graduate school at Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard. And then equally qualified students wouldn’t even graduate. And what I saw is, too often, the difference between those who succeeded and those who did not was the big bureaucracy that would swallow them up. Simple things like not getting a payment in on time or not registering for a course in a timely fashion or a hold on an account would turn out to be the straw that would lead to a student to drop out. So what we’ve really concentrated at Georgia State is putting the mirror on ourselves and saying: "How are we part of the problem?" It’s not because the preparation of our students before they arrive is unimportant. But we don’t have a lot of control over the preparation of the students before they arrive on campus. What we do have a lot of control over is how we admit students, how we advise them, how we register them for classes, how we package them for financial aid. It’s complicated to do college, right? Lots of administrative bureaucracy, financial aid forms and deadlines and so forth. And students from multi-generation college families with brothers and sisters and parents who’ve gone to college have this invisible support system, parents and uncles and aunts and so forth, who are stepping in and helping them. If you’re a low-income, first-generation student — and more of our non-white students tend to fall in those categories — you often don’t have that kind of help. So by providing that support, we’ve been able to truly transform the outcomes for our students.

Orlando Montoya: Speaking of outside support, what needs to be done outside of colleges and universities in society at large to help you to recruit and retain a diverse student body?

Timothy Renick: I think we need to work on changing the national dialogue about the importance of education. Clearly there has been a narrative over the last few years that has suggested to many that college is not worth it. The reality is that, while college can be expensive, we can lower those costs. And one thing that is part of the Georgia State story that we haven’t mentioned is that the cost of education at Georgia State and the average loan debt has gone down remarkably. It’s gone down every year since 2016 — in part because we are getting students through their programs more efficiently, so they’re taking less time to degree and collecting less debt in the process. So, one, we can do better in getting down the costs of higher education. But more than that, we have to get people to realize that higher education is one of the few reliable sources of true social mobility. It also impacts quality of life. If you hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to somebody who has only a high school diploma, you ... have access to better health care, you have longer life expectancy, your children have better educational opportunities. The average bachelor’s student over their lifetime, according to the Pew Research Center, will earn about $1 million more than will the high school diploma holder.

Orlando Montoya: Given the Supreme Court’s decision, do you anticipate having to make any changes to how you do things?

Timothy Renick: I think not only the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action but the blocking of the Biden proposal to forgive federal student loan debt indicate that it’s more important that we correct certain things that are going on in higher education. If the courts are not going to help this process, then what do we need to do? Really, the response that higher education needs to make, at this point, is to do our job better. Turn graduation rates. Georgia State’s graduation rate was under a third of our students. Now, close to 60% are graduating on time and another 15% or so graduate a year or so after that. That’s transformative, right? That makes a huge difference when it comes to the equation of: "Is college worth it for me" or is college a public good for the state of Georgia? We’ve got to replicate that over and over again. And that’s precisely the work of the National Institute for Student Success, as we’re working with other institutions, including a number in the state of Georgia, to help them understand that by using these approaches — big data, AI, predictive analytics and so forth — not to profit from individuals, but to actually increase their chances of succeeding, we have the chance to really transform college outcomes.