Leadership & Governance

How a President Hopes to Transform a Commuter Campus Into an Urban Research University

Mark P. Becker, Georgia State University

November 15, 2015

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz


Urban campuses with high percentages of Pell-eligible students traditionally face an uphill climb. 

When Mark P. Becker became president of Georgia State University in 2009, he set out to convert it from a middling commuter campus in downtown Atlanta into an urban research institution anchored by sports teams that would compete at the highest levels of intercollegiate athletics. Six years down the road, he’s partway there.

With 60 percent of its undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, Georgia State has relied on strong advising to propel its African-American students to one of the highest graduation rates nationwide among institutions of its type. The university’s athletics successes, however, have been largely elusive.

Mr. Becker describes why he remains optimistic about his ambitions for the university.


BRAD WOLVERTON: Hi. We're here today with Mark Becker, President of Georgia State University, who's just completed his seventh year. I thought I'd start today, Mark, with the question of perceptions and how so much rides on this notion of what other people think of you in higher education.

And Georgia State has traditionally been this place that's been thought of as a sleepy commuter college. Somehow, in recent years, it's transformed. It's now known as one of the innovators. I'm curious how you've managed those perceptions. And what are some of the ways that you've helped Georgia State become a place where people want to go, and not just a second choice?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, really, it's come from a purposeful effort in the entire university community to really create a new kind of urban research university. We recognize that the world is urbanizing, our nation is urbanizing, and that there's a real, if you will, desire for young people to be in our urban cities, in our urban course or cities. So at Georgia State, we decided, with our strategic plan starting in 2011, that we'd be very intentional about capitalizing on all the assets that our city, Atlanta, has to offer.

BRAD WOLVERTON: So what are some of the ways that you've made Georgia State a place that people want to go? I know that the Hope Scholarship helps a little bit, allowing more students from the state to get in and have a large part of their education paid for. But not everybody can obviously get in to the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. What are some things that you've emphasized there that make it attractive?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, we've been known for providing a high quality of education for a long time. But as you said earlier, historically, we're a commuter institution. We now have, if you will, an entire or full university experience. We have residential opportunities. We're constructing a new residence hall that will put us at over 5,000. We've moved up to Division I in intercollegiate athletics.

So you take all those other pieces that you would get at a university, like the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, piled onto what is already a reputation for great quality education. And then on top of that, we've gained a reputation for being an institution that does a very good job of helping students stay on track and get to graduate.

BRAD WOLVERTON: So tell us a little bit more about that. So you have a large share of your students who have received Pell Grants, something like 60%.

MARK P. BECKER: About 60%, yes.

BRAD WOLVERTON: And then you have a terrific graduation rate among African Americans, maybe the best in the country outside of historically black institutions. What's your secret sauce?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, there is no one piece of secret sauce, except that we're very intentional about student success. Perhaps the piece that we've done the greatest with is our advising system, which is a big data environment, where we use every grade, every course, every student for more than a decade to actually have more informed, better advising. We have an alert system that actually, when a student seems to be getting off track, pings both the student and the adviser to get a face to face meeting. We had 42,000 such face to face meetings between students and advisors last year.

So if we have any secret sauce, it's really that we go to scale. It's that we're not doing anything that anybody else isn't doing. But we're doing things big.

BRAD WOLVERTON: How do you help those students who need a little extra money to get by that semester? Are there ways that you can provide incentives there?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, we have a variety of programs. We have our Keep Hope Alive program for students who have lost the Hope Scholarship and need to get it back. So that's one intervention we have. We have our Panther Retention Grants, which is a different program for students that are close to graduation that are just a few dollars short that semester staying in school, because we can't forgive tuition.

As a state institution, the student has to pay the full tuition. So we have some grant programs, some interventions. We're able to identify students who are most likely to benefit from those and able to use those in a strategic manner.

BRAD WOLVERTON: One of the ways that you've moved up and you've broadened your reach and increased your reputation, or tried to, is through football. Five years ago, you didn't have a football team. You didn't even have a marching band. What do you hope football can do for you?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, actually, football's already done that a lot for us. I came in January of 2009. The decision had been made to add football, but we didn't actually start playing till 2010. And the transformation that took place on campus between 2009, 2010 to today has been dramatic.

The number of students that are wearing Georgia State gear-- shirts, hats, t-shirts, everything-- has just exploded. There was very little of that before football. In the southeast, football is a real big deal. And so for our students, as one student said to our Vice President for Student Affairs, the day we started football is the day we became a real or a complete university.

BRAD WOLVERTON: One of the concerns about the growth of sports is that sometimes-- a program like football cost a lot of money. You have 85 scholarships if it's fully funded. And it hasn't exactly taken off yet. I was at a game recently, and the stands aren't quite full and the team hasn't quite turned the corner.

The school pays a large share of the cost of the athletic department. The subsidy is up to 80%. And a lot of that falls on the students, through student fees. How have you manage the optics of that?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, there's two parts to it. First, the decision to launch football was predicated on a vote of the student government to actually impose a student fee, to self-impose a student fee or to support a student fee to support the expansion of the athletics program to include football. So that was in the early days. And again, that happened around 2008 or so.

Since that time, since 2009, we have implemented the fee, as was agreed to through that vote. But we actually slowed down the rate at which we rolled in the full completion of the fee program because of the recession and the financial pressures.

So what we were able to do is we have not had an increase in Georgia State University fees, the total fees paid, since I've been president. So since January of 2009, Georgia State University fees for students have not gone up. What we've been able to do is we've been able to implement the agreed upon athletic fee as we retired other fees. So that's how we've balanced this. But we've had to do it over a longer period of time than was originally anticipated, largely because of the recession.

BRAD WOLVERTON: Where is Georgia State athletics in five years?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, we expect we'll probably have a final four in basketball. We had a great year last year. We're expecting to have an even better year this year. Our football team in five years should be playing at a bowl game-- hopefully, winning it. Actually, we'd expect to win it if we're there.

And then other sports, we're competitive. We're already competitive in sports like tennis and golf, soccer-- men's team to qualify for the NCAA tournament a year or so ago-- baseball. So we expect to have a competitive Division I athletics program at the same time that we're a successful research university, capitalizing on all the opportunities in a great city like Atlanta.

BRAD WOLVERTON: And ideally, what does that student fee in the percentage of your program that's funded from the institution look like in five, 10 years?

MARK P. BECKER: Well, in the most ideal circumstances, it goes away altogether. But nobody can predict the economics of athletics in higher education right now, given all that's taken place in the courts.

BRAD WOLVERTON: So you're bullish.

MARK P. BECKER: We're bullish. Absolutely, we're bullish. We have to be.

BRAD WOLVERTON: Thanks for joining us today, Mark.

MARK P. BECKER: It's my pleasure. Thank you.