Achieve Atlanta provided Jazzmyne Dennis with resources and a coach to help her graduate from Valdosta State University. (Photo by Elevated Perceptions Photography)

Research by Georgia State University’s Georgia Policy Labs shows Achieve Atlanta Scholars who receive scholarships and support services persist in college at much higher rates than similar peers without those resources.

The scholars are 11 percentage points more likely to continue from freshman fall to spring semester with similar results in subsequent semesters. The findings were most concentrated among scholars with 80-90 high school GPAs, many of whom were not eligible for Georgia’s merit-based HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships.

We placed our bets on this belief that to change big social problems, you’ve got to have cross-sector collaboration with a common vision, common goals and a lot of accountability,” said Tina Fernandez, Achieve Atlanta founding executive director.

The nonprofit partners with Atlanta Public Schools (APS), 10 colleges and universities and numerous nonprofit and community organizations to help APS students access, afford and earn postsecondary credentials.

“To have an outside evaluator validate that what we’re doing is having a significant impact on the students we serve, really affirmed our work,” Fernandez said. 

In 2015, when Achieve Atlanta was founded, only 1 in 7 APS students was predicted to earn a postsecondary degree in six years.  Yet by 2025, data shows that more than 60% of Georgia’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or certification, according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. 

To disrupt this trend, Achieve Atlanta set out to connect eligible APS students  – who meet income requirements, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and graduate with a 75+ GPA – to financial, academic, and social-emotional support. To date, this collaboration has served 5,100+ Scholars, 94%  of whom are Black or Latinx, at 300+ institutions across the U.S.

“Achieve Atlanta has provided me with the best resources that helped me during my 4-year college experience. Not only did they provide financial support with scholarships and emergency grants, but they supplied me with a college coach who I built a strong bond with,” said Jazzmyne Dennis, Valdosta State University ’22.

Achieve Atlanta Scholars from Oglethorpe University. (Courtesy Oglethorpe)

Achieve Atlanta prepares high school juniors and seniors for postsecondary education with a free SAT offering during the school day plus college application and financial aid advising. It also provides a need-based scholarship of $5,000 per year for scholars pursuing a bachelor’s degree and $1,500 per year for an associate or technical degree. Scholars can also apply for a one-time emergency grant of up to $500 to weather unexpected financial challenges. To help navigate campus life and resources, all scholars attending a Georgia institution are assigned a coach and those at one of Achieve Atlanta’s 10 partner institutions also have access to a peer advisor. 

“We think the data makes a good case for state need-based aid,” said Korynn Schooley, Achieve Atlanta’s vice president of college access. “The results were most promising at that GPA range right below HOPE eligibility.  Last session, the state did pass a small pilot program for completion grants for students with need. We are hoping to build off of that. Need-based aid is not just helpful for students at the end of their college career … our research shows it’s an important factor in helping students persist in college from the start of their college career.” 

As Achieve Atlanta advocates for more state need-based aid, the nonprofit will also embark on a strategic planning process this spring as it prepares for a leadership change following Fernandez’s departure.  The evaluation results along with the ongoing support from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation and a recent $8 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott will aid Achieve Atlanta on how to expand its impact.

“We are now in a position to be thinking about growth and how do we support all of our college graduates to a strong first job,” Fernandez said. 

With 1,000+ college graduate scholars to date, Achieve Atlanta is working with Georgia State University, Spelman College, the Metro Atlanta and Georgia Chambers of Commerce, and a national nonprofit, Braven, on a series of interventions to help scholars connect to internships and first jobs.

Over the next three years, Georgia Policy Labs will continue to monitor Achieve Atlanta’s influence on postsecondary education persistence and completion while also examining its scholars’ student debt and financial wellness.

“We have started to harvest the fruit of seeds we planted eight years ago,” Fernandez said.  “What I’m excited about is that it is going to continue to grow over the next phase of this organization’s life. We are going to see more and more the impact of what happens when a community rallies around its students.” 

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Clare S. Richie

Clare S. Richie is a freelance writer and public policy specialist based in Atlanta.