ATD Summit Helps Colleges Use Data for Student Success - Higher Education
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ATD Summit Helps Colleges Use Data for Student Success

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COLLEGE PARK, MD — Leaders and representatives from 81 colleges and university systems gathered for Achieving the Dream’s (ATD) fourth annual Data and Analytics Summit to learn best practices for analyzing and utilizing student data to better inform institutional practices and policies.

Dr. Karen A. Stout

Centering around the theme “Mind the Data Gap,” ATD presenters and officials shared lessons on how to build institutional capacity on data literacy and emphasized the necessity of using student data efficiently to “tell a story” in order to improve every students’ post-secondary experience and outcomes.

“It’s clear that most of our colleges don’t have a clear data strategy,” said Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of ATD, in an opening keynote address. “Without that strategy, you can’t really leverage your data.”

Data should be used to inform decision-making on student success initiatives, Stout said, adding that, very often, institutional data plans “are not connected to advancing the student success agenda.”

ATD analyses showed that institutions use less than one percent of their structured student data. More than 70 percent of employees have access to data they should not have. Further, 80 percent of a data analyst’s time is spent discovering and preparing data, instead of analyzing it to influence the college’s student success strategy, Stout added.

Stout highlighted “The Elements of Data Strategy” — a framework created by Dr. Thomas H. Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College — as a rubric for institutions to pair their data analytics with their strategic agenda for student success.

Davenport’s rubric identifies “defense” and “offense” data strategies.

Defensive strategies include optimizing data extraction, standardization, storage and access, and they assist with data security, privacy, integrity, regulatory compliance and governance.

Offensive strategies include optimizing data analytics, modeling, visualization and enrichment, and they can help institutions work towards student outcomes goals. ATD’s work around student success falls on the offensive end, Stout said.

“Both [strategies] are important,” Stout continued. “The challenge for organizations is to get the right balance.”

External factors such as state regulations and Board of Trustees governance and internal factors such as a strong institutional desire to improve student outcomes or tensions between IT, academic and other departments can influence this balance of strategies, Stout added.

Keeping up with the sports theme of her keynote “Offense, Defense or Special Teams: What’s Your Data Strategy Playbook?” Stout challenged institutions to create a data hierarchy that “creates a single source of truth” on student outcomes.

To avoid data “fumbles,” Stout said, institutions should place student voices into the data, focus on facilitating data sharing, equip data teams with a faculty voice and also bring in “special teams” of external and internal partners to help get involved in data work on campus.

Dr. Susan Wood, associate vice president of academic affairs at Doña Ana Community College, built on Stout’s message in her session “Building Institutional Capacity to use Data Effectively.”

Wood has worked to build her college’s capacity on data literacy by honing in on five areas: articulating the value of data; creating a sense of exigency; developing a data infrastructure; reinforcing the expectation to use data; and providing opportunities to “practice, practice, practice” using data.

“We’ve got to give ourselves lots of opportunities to use and analyze data so that it becomes a habit,” Wood said. “If you ask for data, we want you to use it.”

Doña Ana Community College offers professional development activities for faculty and staff to understand the value of the college’s student data. Exercises such as the “Numbers are People, Too” activity helped faculty and staff understand that the data represents real students with real lives, creating a sense of exigency, Wood said.

The college also created a Data Strategy Framework Guidelines and Procedures that references various data sources, resources and people at the college who can assist with data analysis or finding data reports. In addition, individuals can access a data request form on the Institutional Analysis office’s website.

Moreover, a Data Literacy Team (DaLT) provides data consultation to the Doña Ana campus community. The DaLT team is tasked with building data literacy for all campus constituents and they release campus-wide student success reports each semester.

On the team, “staff are represented, administrators are represented and faculty,” Wood said. “We’re bringing in students now.”

It is not just the Institutional Analysis Office’s responsibility to utilize data for student success, “It’s everybody. We all have a responsibility to look at data,” Wood urged.

For institutions looking to better use their data, she advised colleges to start with putting on paper an intentional data strategy framework. “You’ve got to conceptualize what this will look like on your campus,” she said.

In the plenary session “Why it’s Better to Lead Than Lag: How Leading Indicators Can Drive Institutional Change,” Institute for Evidence-Based Change president and CEO Dr. Brad Phillips discussed the importance of using leading indicators (evidence of progress) to achieve larger outcomes goals, which are lagging indicators such as graduation or successful course completion.

“Always start with the lagging indicators and backward map to the leading indicators,” he said.

When Odessa College saw a pattern of student behavior indicating that they were withdrawing from some professors’ classes more than others’, leaders looked to the data to understand the underlying reasons why, said Dr. Donald Wood, vice president for institutional effectiveness at Odessa.

After conducting instructor interviews, leaders found that instructors’ relationship with students affected the students’ course retention and completion.

As a result, the college developed instructional commitments that included interacting with students by name, closely monitoring student progress and holding one on one meetings with students. Student course retention rates increased significantly.

Odessa also developed services commitments for other staff and administrators.

“We decided that human relationships were at the heart of everything,” said Donald Wood. “That made a huge difference” in terms of student enrollment, persistence and completion.

The summit also addressed using data to encourage educational equity for students.

Dr. Terri Manning, strategic data and technology coach at ATD, said that individuals should not think of educational equity as giving “preferential treatment” to certain student groups.

It is about providing some students — including minority students, low-income, first-generation, veterans, disabled students or students who are food, housing and transportation insecure — with additional assistance or wraparound services to meet institutional achievement goals, she said.

She added that it can be hard for colleges to admit that they are not serving some of their students well. But by looking at demographic data before a student even steps on campus, institutions can identify support services a student may need.

When students are on campus, institutions should be looking at data metrics that gauge a student’s momentum towards degree completion and also analyzing disaggregated metrics to see what support services or interventions are working and what needs to be changed for certain groups, Manning added.

Susan Mayer, chief learning officer at ATD, added that institutions should ask students about challenges or barriers they are facing and also create a supportive council of advocates for students consisting of individuals in counseling and advising, academic disciplines, financial aid, career planning and more.

Beyond this, she suggested that equitable support for students may mean making supplemental support services such as study halls, tutoring labs or co-requisite classes mandatory.

“If we provide that on a required basis for our athletes, aren’t there other students” who may need similar support? Mayer asked.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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