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Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Impact of a Data-Centric Institutional Culture

The EvoLLLution | Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Impact of a Data-Centric Institutional Culture
When it comes to creating a data-centric culture on campus, words are not enough. Starting with a shared vision from leadership and a commitment across the institution to information sharing and collaboration, stakeholders across the institution need to buy into the vision of data-backed student success in order to make it a reality.

Though data has been central to the development of sound practices in management and service for decades in the private sector, only in the past few years has it become common in the postsecondary space. Driven by a combination of increasing external criticism and decreasing budgets, institutional leaders are more focused today than ever before on how to maximize resources while delivering high-quality, personalized learning experiences to their students. This work is facilitated by the collection and analysis of data. However, this is not as simple as just opening an Excel spreadsheet and seeing what comes out. In this interview, Jack Suess shares his thoughts on the impact data and analytics can have on the student experience and discusses a few of the obstacles that must be overcome in creating a data-centric environment on campus.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most common roadblocks postsecondary staff tend to face when it comes to leveraging data to improve the student experience?

Jack Suess (JS): First, I think it is necessary for the CIO to work with other institutional leaders to forge a vision for what a student success initiative means for the student experience on campus. It is essential for leaders to discuss and develop a shared vision. In the case of UMBC, our student success efforts are about providing students and faculty with the information to make better decisions—what academic policies will promote and support student persistence and improve time-to-degree. For students, we’re focused on giving them the information they need to make better decisions—from career and major choices to developing an academic and co-curricular pathway to support their professional goals.

As I talk to colleagues I see a few common problems associated with leveraging data to improve the student experience. The first problem is building partnerships between IT, institutional research (IR), student affairs, and academic affairs. Student success requires a holistic view of the student and no one area has the capacity and capability to do all that is necessary.

A second problem with leveraging data to improve the student experience is getting consensus from groups that provide services to students to capture and identify those students that are using an intervention service. This last point is critical. Without knowing who did and didn’t participate in an intervention, you can’t determine what, if any, impact that intervention has on retention and graduation.

Evo: How would focusing on system integrations and data availability help to overcome these obstacles?

JS: Ultimately, the common thread between the two obstacles I highlighted was siloing of information and effort. Improving system integrations is critical to building those bridges.

One of the key integrations we had to develop for groups was to create tools to allow them to easily track the students using their service or attending events. We worked closely with our student affairs division to collaborate on creating an easy to use business process for tracking students that attend co-curricular activities. With this developed for student affairs, we have been able to modify the processes and support tracking those students that visit our learning commons, and how often they come in. With these tools in place we are now getting data that allows us to answer questions we were never able to answer—such as which new students have not attended any co-curricular events in their first semester—and then design programs to reach out to those students.

Making data available is critically important because this provides those units on the frontline of delivering service with valuable insight on how their initiatives supporting student success are working. When departments that are providing services to students have data to see exactly which students are utilizing those services, it provides tremendous insight in whether they are reaching the students the service was intended to support. At UMBC, we have seen examples where some of our services designed to support at-risk students are being used mostly by our high-performing students. With this data, we are now building new tools to better tailor our communications strategy and hopefully reach the at-risk students we are hoping to support with the initiative.

Evo: Given challenges around data confidentiality and siloing, what role must the CIO play in creating a data-driven environment across campus?

JS: The CIO must be both an advocate for allowing data to move beyond the traditional departmental silos while at the same time developing rules for the security and privacy of student information.

This requires the CIO to advocate for sharing key data elements across units to aid in student success, while simultaneously developing robust policies to support best practices in data security that protect the privacy of the data collected. In my opinion, there are two “worst case scenarios” that need to considered. First, you collect a lot of data and never delete that data after the student graduates. Then many years after the student graduates, data that might be considered negative is somehow released by accident and hurts the person and embarrasses the institution. Secondly, the university collects data that shows certain students are at high risk of not graduating, and does nothing to use that data to support those students.

In the first example, we don’t recognize that time may make some of the data we collected inappropriate and it should have been deleted or anonymized when the student graduated. In the second example, we have developed accurate predictive analytics that tell us a student is at high-risk and we continue to allow the student to borrow money and get deeper in debt without sharing that information or providing support interventions to improve outcomes.

In our case, this is causing the campus to revisit how long we keep student data and causing us to increase our training to those with access to this data. In addition, as we develop predictive analytics we are working with staff to understand how we both share that information with students and work to take action to best support the student.

Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges a CIO can expect to face when moving to create a campus environment where the most and best data is as accessible as possible to different stakeholders?

JS: First and foremost, the CIO needs to work with other executives to develop a campus vision for how data can advance the strategic and operational goals of the institution. Without buy-in from the President and Chief Academic Officer (CAO) on why data is essential to making decisions, it is difficult to build a unified vision for making data broadly available. Second, the CIO is uniquely positioned to understand where important data is being siloed and kept away from decision makers. If the CIO has created support among the leadership team, he/she is positioned to build support for expanding access to data. Finally, it is essential for CIO’s to use data to create value from data. I encourage CIO’s to look for quick wins and develop dashboards with key metrics that can aid decision makers. For institutions that are just starting this effort, identifying strategic vendor partners can be helpful in delivering quick wins.

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