THE BLOG
10/23/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

When Education Data Speaks, Are We Really Listening?

You know how it is when you get the sense the person you're talking to is nodding their head appearing to listen, but is really just waiting to talk. Desperate to interject and say the right thing, they ... don't.

That's how it is with education data. We capture more and more data, but are we really listening to understand what data mean? Or just blurting an answer that misses the mark?

Take the college graduation rates that will appear in President Obama's proposed college-ratings system. All colleges that receive federal financial aid must report their institutions' graduation rate. It's an important number that tells what is happening, but not why.

More work to uncover what's going on behind the numbers will mean the difference between problem solving and paralysis. Here are five tips for going beyond top line findings:

  1. Go slow to go fast. Taking the time to correlate graduation rates with things like grade-point averages, SAT scores, residency status, late registration, enrollment in remedial courses and in-class retention reveals a host of useful information. Helping students be successful means knowing who needs help, when and where. Is it preparation? Is it completing specific courses? Getting remedial help? Could financial aid help resolve competing work/family commitments? This analysis will lead to the right answers.
  2. No surprises. Engage faculty. Asking those who work closest to the student to help decide what data are collected when makes abundant sense. Odessa college leaders knew they had drop out problems, but to make improvements faculty needed an earlier distress signal than graduation or persistence rates. Following in-class retention numbers put faculty in the drivers seat to avert issues before they led to dropping out. Teams of staff were assigned to follow and support students throughout the semester. The results were stunning. The number of yearly graduates increased 55 percent. In-class retention improved from 83 percent to 95 percent in six years. Traditional struggling groups have also increased: both males and Hispanics increased course success rates by 10 percent.
  3. Use the right data at the right time, routinely. The right indicators can help college leaders and professors better know and respond to their students at the right time, saving time and money. A recent Inside Higher Education article found that almost half of those dropping out finish a year of college with a GPA between 2.0 and 3.0. This data set slips under the radar, because it doesn't trigger any warning signs for students likely to drop out. It's a mystery worth solving if we plan to achieve the college completion levels that bring students and the nation greater economic opportunities. Listening to data is also not a "one and done" enterprise. Leadership should provide routine opportunities for faculty to use data. Too often in the day-to-day job of teaching there is no space made to engage with data. It should become as routine as a nurse repeatedly taking patient vital signs.
  4. Ask the students. Understand the customer's journey and needs with student interviews, focus groups and other qualitative techniques. Information from focus groups can be collected using any one of many online tools. Market research professionals have been gathering data in this way to understand attitudes, opinions and behavior for years. It is an inexpensive and easy way to gather information.
  5. Turn data fatigue into curiosity. When decision makers listen to what data are saying about students, they are in a better position to apply solutions that match the problem. Continually fanning the flames of inquiry into data indicators of student success leads to more of the right answers. Too often, colleges and universities spend scarce funding on good interventions, but ones that just don't address the problem at hand.

A decade of research from the Center for Community College Student Engagement shows that students are successful when colleges "make engagement inescapable." That means something different for each college and each degree area within that college. The Center identifies 13 specific practices proven to improve student retention and graduation rates. The key is finding the one that fits each campus.

These five tips are applied daily by the most successful retailers, who listen very carefully to data speak daily as customers search, comment, buy, return, share with a friend. When it comes to data and accountability in higher education, more listening, more often will uncover new insights, lessons and success.

Rather than a means of punishment and blame, a thorough and ongoing grounding in the data will help decision makers figure out who needs help and, over time, whether retention programs are making a difference. That's worth listening to.