The Power of Purpose in Higher Education

At BrightHouse and BCG, we know that Purpose has the power to transform organizations. Unlike mission (the “what”), vision (the “where”), Purpose is an organization’s “why.” It’s at the intersection of two fundamental questions: Who are we? (That is, what are our authentic and distinctive strengths?) and what need do we fulfill in society? (Why do we exist beyond what we make, do, or sell? And why work for us?).
In our work with higher education institutions, we find that most universities have clear missions (education, research, and extension) and visions (mountains they want to climb in the next 5 years), yet few have articulated their Purpose.

GSU’s journey with the power to transform
Over the past two decades, Georgia State University (GSU) has become a national treasure: transforming from a commuter campus graduating less than a third of its students to the #1 pipeline of African American graduates in the country. GSU serves more than 54,000 students across 7 campuses and 250 degree programs. Their innovative strategies have been studied by more than 300 other universities and colleges and featured in the New York Times and in recent BCG research. Foundational to their success is their focus on graduating Atlanta’s future, unlocking social mobility and opportunity for all
To understand GSU’s journey, we recently spoke with Dr. Tim Renick, Senior Vice President of Student Services and Professor of Religion at GSU.
He shared some of the trends in higher education in Georgia over the past 15 years. In 2003, GSU’s graduation was 32%, with significant gaps for underserved populations – 22% for Latinos, 29% for African Americans, and 18% for African-American males.  During that same time period, Georgia’s flagship universities – the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech University – were becoming increasingly competitive, in part due to the HOPE Scholarship, a program for Georgia residents who have demonstrated academic achievement, and students choosing to remain in-state. While universities are typically seen as a conduit for social mobility, the increasingly competitive admissions threatened to lock out some Georgians. Renick and other GSU leaders recognized that there were less options for lower income students in Georgia and those with 3.0 GPAs, and decided to take this on. 
“Talent and ability do not correlate to zip code. Georgia State takes on a moral obligation – our students are more diverse and less resourced, but if you agree with the premise that they have just as much potential then we have an obligation to provide an equally rich experience,” said Renick. The Purpose at GSU according to Renick is to drive social mobility in the state of Georgia – to provide equal educational opportunities for Georgians.
Over 5 years, building on that Purpose, the university set forth a new strategic plan with the vision to: “become a national model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.” This Purpose and corresponding vision have driven a major transformation for GSU, its brand, and its culture over the past decade.
GSU’s overall approach to student success is to understand data and take action based on that. For example:

  • Predictive analytics trigger more than 50,000 face-to-face meetings with advisors
  • Academic support is tailored to the student including re-envisioning freshman student experiences, providing adaptive learning courses and peer tutoring opportunities
  • Micro-grants are provided for as little as $300 for emergency funding to allow students to stay enrolled
  • Leveraging an AI-enhanced chat bot to deliver more than 200,000 answers to incoming freshmen, reducing summer melt by 22%

Senior leadership (all the way to President Mark Becker) were willing to actively invest to make large changes, digging in to implementation detail and buying in to the overall Purpose of GSU. This hands-on approach has been a critical success factor for GSU, says Renick. While many have come to GSU for site visits, the most successful universities have had senior leaders committed to the Purpose, strategy, and operational plans. 
Beyond improved graduation rates (currently 55%, up from 32% in 2003), GSU’s focus on student success has become a rallying cry for culture and a strong link to their vision to drive social mobility. GSU’s Talent Acquisition team regularly markets the fact that GSU is an “award-winning” university in an urban setting. According to Renick, this has led to many new faculty members choosing GSU over offers from more elite universities.  “People come to GSU because of our Student Success mission.”  GSU is now widely known as one of the most diverse universities in the U.S. and a national leader in graduating students from diverse socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and geographic backgrounds.

Rise and Shine. Students walk to their classes.

Conclusion
The success at GSU provides a great case study on why having a clearly articulated Purpose is important for higher education institutions.  Over the past four years, African American, Hispanic, and Pell-eligible students have, on average, all graduated from GSU at or above the rates of the student body overall—making GSU the only national public university to attain this goal.  GSU’s Purpose is authentic, inspiring, and embedded throughout the organization (including strategy, execution, and culture). Said Renick, “People believed in our Purpose [around social justice,] but we needed to get people to believe that we could actually do it and accomplish the mission.” 
Other higher education institutions would be wise to follow GSU’s lead, leveraging the power of an articulated Purpose.  Learn more about how BrightHouse and BCG help organizations discover their Purpose in a new #HowtobyBCG article “How to Harness the Power of Purpose.” 

Want to learn more? Get LinkedIn with Andy Redman and Tejus Kothari.

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