Targeting Diverse Students

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Monday, June 7, 2021
By Sharon Shinn
Photo courtesy of Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business
A look at the strategies Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business used to recruit its most diverse class ever in the fall of 2020.

Richard Phillips is quick to point out that there is a real business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Phillips, the dean of Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business in Atlanta, notes that inclusive companies are 1.7 times more innovative and 120 percent more likely to hit financial goals. Diverse teams are 87 percent better at making decisions, and racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

It stands to reason that companies will be looking for more diverse employees, and the Robinson College is committed to educating those workers. In the fall of 2020, the school welcomed the largest and most diverse group of grad students in its history.

Fifty-five percent of the 862 students who made up that class were women. In addition, more than half (51.4 percent) identified as racial or ethnic minorities. Of that number, 39.7 percent were Black or African American, 6.9 percent were Hispanic, 4.7 percent were multiracial, and 0.1 percent were American Indian, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian. Students represented 45 countries, 27 states, and the District of Columbia.

To draw women and minority students to its programs on an ongoing basis, the Robinson College has instituted a number of recruiting and retention strategies—but it also focuses on its core values.

“Our mission is transforming lives, society, and the world through the education of underrepresented minorities and women,” says Phillips. Here, he speaks with AACSB Insights to describe the approaches the school is taking to serve its broad student base.

Richard Phillips
Richard Phillips

What is the Robinson College’s overall approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion? Did the college set target goals or use different admissions criteria when recruiting students for the fall of 2020?

The criteria for women and underrepresented minorities remained unchanged. However, since job losses resulting from the pandemic disproportionately impacted women and underrepresented minorities, the appeal of career advancement through graduate education resonated more strongly for these populations.

We do not set diversity targets, nor do we try to shape a class by admitting more of one type of student versus another. Rather, we develop curricula, student experiences, and career outcomes that appeal broadly to the demographic of our region. For instance, we deliver a curriculum that prepares students for some of today’s most in-demand career paths, including STEM, digital innovation, and analytics.

What are some of the strategies you used when recruiting students last year?

We focused on “market sensing”—paying close attention to what was happening in the market and quickly responding. For example, we recognized early that the pandemic could make it more difficult for some students to apply to graduate school if they had challenges in taking the GMAT or GRE. We took proactive steps to ensure access to our programs, including providing test waivers and extending deadlines to account for longer wait times.

We embraced the reality of the pandemic by accelerating the deployment of our Robinson Anywhere platform. This platform allows students to choose how they experience our programs—from campus, home, work, or anywhere else.

We recognized early that the pandemic could make it more difficult for some students to apply to graduate school if they had challenges in taking the GMAT or GRE. We took proactive steps to ensure access to our programs.

During the recruiting cycle, we also strove for “high touch at scale.” This meant that, even though we were interacting with about 1,500 graduate students across 14 programs, we consistently struck a tone of empathy and understanding.

Also, for each of those 14 programs, we delivered a series of webinars that admitted students could watch over the summer months. These synchronous events were designed to jumpstart the building of the learning community. They also enabled incoming students to meet faculty, students, staff, alumni, and potential employers months before classes started. All told, we conducted more than 40 synchronous events for admitted students and had over 900 student touchpoints.

Once you’ve recruited students from underrepresented populations, what are some of the steps the university takes to retain them?

We systematically investigate what causes smart, capable students to struggle, and then we provide the systems and support that give them opportunities to succeed.

For example, Georgia State overhauled its advising system in 2012 by incorporating predictive analytics. At the time, 5,700 students across the university were dropping out every year. We wanted to find out why they were walking away from college without a degree. The data showed 800 warning signs that correlated with students dropping out—including getting bad grades in the courses they needed for their majors, registering for the wrong classes, and having outstanding tuition balances.

We started monitoring students for these warning signs on a daily basis. When students exhibit one of the warning signs, an advisor reaches out to offer them help. While all students receive this level of support, we have seen the biggest gains among first-generation college students and individuals from underrepresented minorities.

We also launched a micro-grant program to help students who are at risk of dropping out due to financial reasons.

Finally, we changed the way students choose majors by creating “pathway” programs. Prospective students choose a general field like business or the arts and then learn more about the choices in that field before committing to a specific degree.

Does the university offer other opportunities that specifically target underrepresented groups?

Expanding on the pathway programs I mentioned, prospective students who demonstrate what they are capable of can be admitted into certain programs. For instance, one candidate might be a woman who has an aptitude for STEM but was previously discouraged from studying science-based disciplines. When students do well in pathway courses like computer coding or math or statistics, they prove they can continue on and have success in an academic career program.

At the Robinson College, we also provide special opportunities and experiences through the Eric J. Joiner Achievement Academy. This is a three-year professional development program for undergraduate business majors, who proceed through the program as a cohort. In addition to taking required classes, students complete hands-on assignments, internships, case competitions, and corporate site visits.

Since the inception of WomenLead, it has impacted more than 1,000 students, distributed 103 student scholar awards, engaged countless corporate partners, and generated a total ROI of 4.2 million USD.

They also participate in a business simulation program. During phase one, student teams conceive of unique product ideas and present them to judges from the school and business community. In phase two, the winning concept is further developed by the students, who are split into teams to handle functions such as marketing, sales, and finance.

Students in the Achievement Academy can receive individual mentoring, attend a dining etiquette session, and have access to a recommended reading list.

Do you have any initiatives that are aimed at women?

We have created WomenLead, which accelerates women’s leadership and success by providing signature courses and opportunities. Since the program’s inception, it has impacted more than 1,000 students, distributed 103 student scholar awards, engaged countless corporate partners, and generated a total ROI of 4.2 million USD. Our WomenLead program was spotlighted by AACSB as one of its 2018 Innovations That Inspire.

We are motivated by statistics like the fact that women constitute almost 50 percent of the labor market but make up only 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce. We also know that, according to the UNESCO Institute for Science, only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. At the Robinson College, women compose 53 percent of the students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) master’s programs, which are typically male-dominated disciplines.

Do you have advice for other schools interested in reaching women and underserved populations?

It comes back to being able to demonstrate that students of all backgrounds can have success in your programs. Look at your systems and try to figure out why certain groups struggle—is there something systemically that’s stopping them? Something in the way you’ve organized yourself as an institution that’s making it harder for them to progress? That’s your jumping-off point for innovating your program.

Sharon Shinn
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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