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Key Data Points for Better Understanding Students

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A new guidebook from Achieving the Dream and the Advising Success Network offers ideas and tools to help colleges and universities understand their students better. The Knowing Our Students Guidebook details the types of data that can support student success efforts, the importance of students' lived experiences, strategies and practices for collecting data, and how best to use data to design the student experience.

"For the past few decades, institutions of higher education have been making strides in the collection and use of data to inform their decisions," the authors explained. "From enrollment data to student surveys, outcome metrics to predictive analytics, institutions collect more information on how their students move through their educational journey than ever before. These data have informed decisions on almost every aspect of the institution, providing leaders with tangible evidence of what's working and what needs to be addressed to increase student success. Yet, while data have helped develop a more sophisticated understanding of institutional effectiveness, the understanding of students has remained somewhat one-dimensional."

To gain a more holistic view of students, the guide advised, start with a deeper understanding of foundational demographic data. This basic information — age, race and ethnicity, etc. — "can be easily accessed and tends to follow a student through their academic experience," the report explained. "Consider how this data might be used to assist in painting a full picture of a student's background and story." In particular, it's important to drill down into the following characteristics:

  • Socioeconomic status. Financial challenges are one of the main reasons that students drop out of college, the report pointed out. Indicators of socioeconomic status can include the student's Free Application for Federal Student Aid, zip code, school district poverty estimate, highest level of education completed by resident parent or guardian, and expected family contribution. "Assisting students to create a financial plan to ensure strategic use of financial aid, along with their academic plan to complete a degree, is an essential step in retaining students, particularly those with fewer resources."
  • Past academic experiences. Review students' high school GPAs, placement in developmental coursework, GED/HSED completers, transfer credit or credit for prior learning, and participation in dual enrollment programs. These key indicators "may bring some opportunity gaps to light" and inform the types of supports institutions can provide "to shift the way new students engage with their first-year experience."
  • Enrollment status. That is, whether students intend to participate in classes full- or part-time. "Understanding why students attend less than full-time can inform critical decisions about retention strategies including academic planning, course scheduling, and student support service delivery," the report said. "Further, coupling enrollment status with other data on students' identities and experiences can provide the level of detail needed to understand if any institutional policies, processes, or structures are impacting a students' decision to enroll part-time for a semester or more."
  • Program of study or major. Understanding students' academic, personal and career goals can help institutions deliver more personalized and strategic advising and supports. By taking a holistic approach, institutions can use "what they know about their students to engage them in early and intentional academic, career, and financial planning and monitoring their plans over time."

These data points aren't enough on their own, however. "Institutions need to move beyond the common demographics of gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and enrollment status," the report asserted, "to recognize the combination of the social identities and lived experiences that support or hinder students' success." Additional factors to consider include:

  • Family status;
  • Parental or caregiver status;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Gender identity or expression;
  • Veteran status;
  • Immigration status;
  • Displaced workers;
  • Job function;
  • Pell eligibility status and level;
  • Formerly or currently incarcerated individuals;
  • Historical personal or collective trauma;
  • Health conditions;
  • Mental health;
  • English literacy;
  • Food insecurity;
  • Housing insecurity;
  • Computer technology literacy and skills; and
  • Years of work experience.

Much of this information is "challenging to collect and personal in nature," the report conceded, "so self-disclosure and clear privacy regulations and safeguards are critical." Still, "institutions that gather and utilize this more descriptive student information are more likely to understand the barriers for students in learning and academic success."

"It is critical that we know our students in new and deeper ways in order to redesign the institution to best support them," commented Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, in a statement. "This guidebook, written after careful research, is a collaboration of ATD leaders and coaches, working with our partner organizations to develop this valuable resource. Of course, there always new questions the field needs to answer and we will update this guidebook as we learn more about designing our institutions to serve the whole student."

The guidebook and supplementary worksheets are available on the Achieving the Dream site.

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