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Three professionals gather around a laptop to look at data.

Higher education professionals should use data to close gaps in retention and completion.

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An April report from Complete College America offers best practices for creating measurement systems and optimizing data management for student success reforms.

Measurement systems help institutional leaders understand the demographics of students who are not enrolling, completing or transitioning into jobs, versus their peers so they can close those performance gaps.

“By monitoring and regularly discussing metrics around enrollment, college completion and the predictors of college completion, colleges can identify trends, measure the effectiveness of their marketing and recruitment strategies, and make data-driven decisions to address declining enrollment,” the report says.

Adopting best practices: CCA’s report offers a step-by-step formula, working vocabulary and assisting workbook for higher education professionals looking to dip their toes into data measurement. Some suggested actions for those working across roles in higher education include:

  1. Put KPIs in the limelight. When characterizing reform methods quantitatively, professionals should start with goals identified in the institution’s mission or strategic plan to measure priorities. Key performance indicators demonstrate achievement of the highest goals, and leading indicators and other data points will support how that needle is moving.
  2. Democratize data access. All stakeholders should be able to access aggregate, collegewide data to know the metrics that predict success, because they are relevant and helpful to their jobs. Widespread distribution empowers faculty, advisers and other staff to ask questions about data and request new data, helps them tie their work and its effectiveness to institutional KPIs, and promotes transparency across the institution.
  3. Safeguard student privacy. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student data, so higher education professionals should guarantee there is privacy in student information while balancing “legitimate educational interest.” Standardizing information access across job functions is one way to ensure privacy but also promote access to intel.
  4. Talk data widely and often. Centering data in conversations often and with all stakeholders is paramount to system success. Tying individual goals to data and tailoring data conversations to a person’s role or department can create a culture shift. However, CCA warns against using data punitively, rather than to improve outcomes for all students.

Creating a data-driven culture. While many institutions want to engage in data work regarding their student success programs, certain pitfalls can create barriers to progress. CCA offers five tips to keep measurement systems in place and working well.

  1. Start now. Higher education professionals should start tracking as soon as possible, even if that’s manually, because tracking a metric can demonstrate students’ realities and how the institution is improving it. Finding and implementing technology solutions can be time intensive, but working manually can create change in the interim, even if the data contain errors sometimes.
  2. Stay committed to goals. When working with student data, higher education professionals should hold on to commitments to improving student outcomes and closing performance gaps and not change measurements. Sometimes the data reveal outliers, which faculty or staff may try to discredit, but those data points are valuable in the overall story.
  3. Keep the process in scope. Improving the student experience is not a controlled environment, meaning that multiple evidence-based changes can change metrics. A variety of reforms working together can mean identifying a single cause is near impossible, but CCA reminds professionals that improvement is the goal, not a singular process’s effects.
  4. Invest in technology. A strong data infrastructure should connect software and warehouses together to create unity in information throughout the institution’s systems. Investing in technology that can aggregate and combine data creates richer insight and analytics.
  5. Create a record. Documentation of systems and processes ensures the longevity of change beyond staff turnover or departmental shifts, so creating a record is critical to this work.

We are seeking stories from readers about what their teams are doing to collect and use student success data more effectively. Share your idea.

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