A Strategic Focus on Outcomes: Shifting From Access to Success with Data
Colleges and universities across the United States have historically been judged on the basis of their ability to create access for students, making enrollment numbers one of the key metrics in determining institutional success. Today, however, simply opening the door is not enough. Institutions are instead being judged on whether their students are earning credentials—be they degrees or certificates—and following through on their goals. In this interview, Brenda Hellyer reflects on the importance of switching gears from access to success, and shares her thoughts on the critical role data plays in making that switch a reality.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What has precipitated the broad shift from focusing on access to focusing on completion and student outcomes?
Brenda Hellyer (BH): At San Jacinto College, that shift came from being involved in Achieving the Dream and looking at our data in a way we hadn’t before. We were very focused around enrollment, we were very focused each semester on having increases in enrollment, but we really hadn’t looked at the success data very much, if at all. Once we became part of Achieving the Dream we started looking at data and it was one of those things you couldn’t walk away from. That was really what precipitated that shift and for us and that resulted in is a real focus on completion.
To focus on completion, we look primarily at degrees and certificates being awarded. Back in 2006-07, we awarded 2,682 credentials. In 2015-16, we awarded 7,019 credentials. That comes from building awareness throughout our organization about what we can do better.
Evo: What are some of the fundamental challenges to driving student outcomes and completion at an open-access institution?
BH: We are an open access institution, which means we take 100 percent of the students that apply. We make sure we get them placed into the appropriate structures or programs in the college.
When we first started having these conversations there was a lot of blame pushing within our organization. There was a feeling that there was nothing we could do about this because we weren’t getting the right kind of students, or that our partners weren’t doing enough, or that our students had been out of high school for so long that they needed to be remediated. But we just had to spend the time having those conversations and then making it very clear these are the students we’re working with and we can see these students being successful and that we’re going to support them.
Now that never means lowering academic standard and we made it very clear we’ve got to figure out how to reach them and bring them forward. We’ll place them in the right courses and then work with them to get them to the next level.
It was really changing our culture, and the discussions throughout our entire organization on this, that drove the focus on support. We know about 75 percent of our students are first-generation college students, we know our students are economically disadvantaged, we know there’s diversity in our population and in their family backgrounds so how do we start providing the support systems they need? When you look at this whole focus around success, what you see in our organization is a commitment to work with these students to help them succeed.
Evo: What can senior institutional leaders do to ensure that student success is a primary focus at every level of the college?
BH: We went through a strategic planning process back in 2009 with our board of trustees and from that planning session the board was very clear that student success needed to be part of our mission. It was part of our vision statement and it was part of our values and one of our strategic goals. At that point, I don’t necessarily know that they knew what all of that meant or what we were going to do to focus on that but they just knew we needed to have improvements in our organization. We used those strategic measures to start having conversations throughout the entire organization. I bet if you went to any of our employees, they know our five strategic goals, they know our focus, they know that our board is looking at dashboard data around semester data, around program data, around graduation and completion data. It keeps a focus on everything that we do. We had departmental meetings digging into their data, so departmental leaders and faculty are having those conversations. We’ve made it very clear that this is a priority. A senior leader has to make sure that they’re involved, their people know it’s important and that they’re having the conversation regularly about it.
Evo: How feasible is it for an institution to be fully focused on student success and student progression without the robust use of data and analytics?
BH: I don’t know how you would do this work without having the data and that was one of our biggest issues when we first started getting into this. We didn’t have the resources invested in IT and the data we needed for institutional research. Our faculty and our support staff didn’t have the data around how students were really doing other than a grade book. There was very limited comparison back to how any faculty member was doing with their peers on their campus or across the college. There was no longitudinal data at all and so that has been a significant investment for us. Then it was having faculty and our staff working with those areas to design the reports we needed, and then making it clear we don’t terminate people based on their poor success data. What we want to do is help develop them. We want to know what professional development is needed and how things are changing in each field. We invested a lot in professional development, and one of the things we did was require all of our employees to go through Skip Downing’s “On Course,” which was the foundation for our student success course. We felt all employees needed to understand the challenges that our students were facing and that was our anchor.
Evo: What impact does prioritizing student success have on the college’s ability to attract new students?
BH: Oftentimes it’s so clear that students are looking for that student success, and are looking to see how well current students are doing here. With transfer success, for example, we’re looking at how our students perform when they go on to 4-year universities. We try to use that to let students know that our students are competing at those university levels once they leave us, and that’s part of our marketing. This morning I spoke to all of our faculty and administrators and said we use that data to show the progression of student success, and this is something that we see as a selling point for why students are going to select us.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to make student success a central part of your institutions strategic outlook?
BH: People tend to think that this is their silver bullet or that there’s just one thing that you can do to drive student success, but it really does require a whole organizational cultural shift. It’s not fast work and it’s not easy work.
It’s a lot of different strategies coming together to make this the focus and then to keep the momentum within your organization, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Our people work hard and in some semesters there’s a level of frustration because maybe we didn’t get the results we thought we might with some new strategy. But it’s being able to say we’re going to try again and we know we can make improvements. The other piece is it’s never done, even with our progress we keep seeing that there’s so much more that we need to do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.