11/20/2012 06:32 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Data Tells the Story and Defends the Work of Minority Serving Institutions

This post was co-authored by Andrés Castro Samayoa, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, and Todd Lundberg, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy recently released a report titled "Using Data to Improve Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) Success." Report authors Bi Vuong and Christen Hairston encourage MSIs to collect data related to student success (we encourage data on all aspects of institutional performance), but more importantly, they point out specific strategies for putting performance data to use. In particular, they discuss leveraging data to improve student support services and to enhance an institution's national profile. At the center of the report are a set of innovative approaches to using data that have emerged from a large-scale study involving the MSIs that have been awarded Lumina Foundation Models of Success Grants.

The most important message in the report is this: MSIs need to gather and use data about student progress to inform institutional practices and decision-making rather than simply to comply with federal and or state rules and policies. According to Vuong and Hairston, if they are to use student progress data to improve practice, MSIs will need to devote more institutional resources to data collection and analysis and also demonstrate more of a willingness to change institutional policies and programs based on what the data show.

Viewing data as a resource for institutional improvement helps MSIs to think differently about what counts as student progress. Vuong and Hairston recommend that MSIs publicly acknowledge that their students' paths to student success are often varied and that standard measures like graduation rates fail to document student progress on those paths. They suggest that MSI leaders should strive to capture and make use of "interim measures" -- indicators that speak to students' experiences between their admission and their graduation from college -- in three areas: placement, persistence, and progression toward a credential.

With regard to placement, the authors highlight how Salish Kootenai College (SKC) and Fort Peck Community College, both tribal colleges, used detailed data to understand high dropout rates and low persistence rates in gateway courses. These colleges discovered that students were being placed in courses that did not meet their needs, and by training both academic advisors and staff the colleges realized a 22 percent drop in the incorrect placement of students and an increase in student persistence.

With regard to persistence, the authors point to the University of Texas -- El Paso and Prairie View A&M University. hese institutions developed a Risk Stratification Model based on a "dynamic process of data collection and analysis to address issues related to persistence of first-time students." With this model, the institutions can identify students who may need more academic support based on factors that negatively affect student success (e.g. academic background, enrollment patterns, and financial aid).

With regard to progression toward a credential, Vuong and Hairston call attention to a collaboration between Miami Dade College and Florida International University (FIU). These institutions studied their Dual Degree Programs by analyzing the data of students who initially applied to FIU but who were not ready to enroll. Their findings modified how the institutions advise students seeking to transfer from one program to another.

In each of these cases, institutions chose to collect data that reveal a much more nuanced picture of student success at MSIs by capturing students' varied paths in attaining their education. These approaches to assessing student progress have enabled these institutions to become much more exact and effective in their approaches to student retention and degree attainment.

Overall, the report notes that collecting data regularly allows MSIs to highlight the uniqueness of their students' experiences, creates potential opportunities for benchmarking and collaborating with other MSIs and peer institutions, produces new success measures that more accurately depict the work of MSIs, reveals institutional strengths, and provides a clearer path to our nation's "goals of increased college completion and student success."

Vuong and Hairston call attention to the limitations of established measures of progress and acknowledge the need to provide different stakeholders with different kinds of evidence with regard to student success. While the report's focus is on quantitative measures of student progress the authors' emphasis on thinking about data differently is applicable to all types of data collection and assessment. Some stakeholders such as policy makers, accreditors, and the Department of Education, need quantitative benchmarks that indicate criterion-referenced improvements; whereas other stakeholder, such as program managers and administrators, may need a mix of evidence that includes surveys, interviews and observations. Because MSIs have cultures and structures that enable them to know and talk to their students as individuals, they are in a position to collect and use data well beyond traditional measurements of completion.

Colleges and universities need to measure completion and aim for degree attainment, but only measuring completion places MSIs at the margins and the students that they serve will continually be looked upon as underperforming when compared to students at more well-endowed and selective institutions. In addition to measuring completion, institutions and researchers alike need to look at student success and retention during the years prior to graduation to create the most effective programs and policies for MSI students based on these data. Moreover, they need to invest the time and resources to understand how well they have served students who move on with and without degrees. MSIs can help higher education overall understand why their students -- those that we as a nation most need to complete a degree -- finish successfully. All of higher education has much to learn about educating low-income, students of color.