How to make data a part of an institution's culture
- The normal operating procedure in higher education is to evaluate problems without the use of data — or the scientific method, said Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University during a panel session at the 2018 American Council on Education Conference Monday. But, he said, that a college president can change that trend by embracing data, reorganizing the institution if needed, and seizing a rhetoric that shows why data and analytics are important.
- Before embracing data, however, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University, said it's critical to not just have "randomized trials," but to strategically focus on what initiatives can improve student success and then work toward proving it, focusing on the specific questions that need to be answered. Pulsipher said he operates under the mindset of, "if you can know, you better know," but "you need to identify the data you can use to prove that first."
- José Cruz, president of Lehman College of the City University of New York, said he cemented this "purpose" of using analytics to aid underserved students by "framing the need to scale and improve quality in a way that leverages the faculty and staff's commitment to social justice and upward mobility," asking them "what can we do to double our impact?"
Though there's discussion about the importance of data analytics in measuring student success throughout the industry, many institutions do not use this strategy or haven't developed a plan for implementing a data approach to factors like graduation and retention rates.
For instance, a survey conducted by Unit 4, a systems management company that serves higher education institutions, reported that 81% of the 150 IT decision-makers respondents said their institutions invest in technology to support student success objectives, but only 37% use data a warehouse and analytics to support student outcomes.
In developing an approach, Becker said when resources are limited, leaders have to think about strategies that are most cost effective and can be scaled effectively. At Georgia State, for instance, the institution used chatbots to reduce summer melt, when admitted students don't come to the first day of classes. He explained that chatbots served a cost-effective way of using technology that took advantage of tools students have — such as text messaging.
Similarly, Cruz said it's important to think strategically from a managerial approach. Lehman College spent time creating a data warehouse from disparate data sources into one location where it could be updated nightly. And, rather than just pushing the system out quickly, the institution changed its management approach by offering the data to campus leaders in an organized fashion, training them how to use the information and assess whether students may not graduate.
To develop a standardized approach, Christine Keller, executive director of the Association for Institutional Research, recommended four pillars for greater data use that institutional leaders can follow:
- Develop a student focused paradigm. "Students are really that common element we share across institutions, and their success is important to the future of of our institutions," said Keller, noting that having this key purpose insures the data approach has a goal.
- Create data networks for an expanded set of decision makers. "Providing data to presidents and provosts is really no longer enough; there are more groups that are making changes on campus that need to get actionable, meaningful data," said Keller.
- Update the institutional research (IR) function. Keller said a data and analytics function is not confined to one office, adding that it's crucial all decision-making individuals to have access to data literacy opportunities.
- Hire a senior IR leader. This role is necessary, said Keller, to guide the strategic planning of the institution's analytics approach and build stronger partnerships across administrative offices using that information.
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