Education

Using data to dislodge barriers to equitable student success (opinion)

Over the past year, colleges and universities have gained valuable experience collecting, analyzing and disseminating data. They initiated much of this work in response to the devastating impact of the global health crisis and the need to develop centralized dashboards to monitor the well-being of their campus communities.

But while institutions published many of those dashboards with the singular goal of keeping the public informed of conditions on the ground, some efforts have also leveraged data to determine how to better support students in the virtual learning environment—addressing such topics as food and housing security, mental and emotional well-being, and technological needs. This data collection and analysis continually pointed to one truth: to make impactful decisions, you need to gather information that you can understand and trust.

As campuses progress through this academic year, the challenges that our students are facing continue to be no less daunting than when the pandemic began. At a time when pernicious and long-standing racial and socioeconomic inequities have been laid bare, higher education leaders must provide their campus communities with disaggregated equity data that empower faculty, staff and administrators to better support students from all backgrounds in realizing their true potential. By democratizing student equity data and disseminating them throughout the arteries of their college or university, higher education leaders can enlist the collective expertise of the campus community to identify and dislodge barriers to student success and advance equitable outcomes.

As part of systemwide work under Graduation Initiative 2025, the California State University system is working to close equity gaps and improve graduation rates across its 23 campuses through its Student Success Dashboard. With over 20,000 annual visits, the dashboard has helped our system’s community address critical equity-focused questions such as: How many additional students of color need to graduate to eliminate the equity gap? Which academic behaviors have the most differentially positive impact on retaining first-generation students? Are students achieving junior status at equitable rates? The dashboard answers such questions with data-informed insights at the campus, college, department and course level, thereby empowering everyone in the CSU community to be agents for equity-minded change.

We have already seen meaningful improvements. For example, a faculty member at Cal Poly Pomona tapped into data for her department and discovered that none of its transfer students were graduating within two years. She also found an equity gap in course grades among students of color. With that knowledge, she implemented small learning groups and began offering supplemental instruction for her course. Those interventions helped transfer students improve their grades and stay on track for graduation while also narrowing the GPA gap between students of color and their peers by 0.3 grade points—a 75 percent improvement.

Another professor at Sacramento State University learned through the dashboard that 32 percent of psychology majors left the department within four years—and the rates were even higher among students of color and those receiving Pell Grants. Digging deeper into the data, she uncovered an introductory course that approximately 10 percent of her students were consistently failing. Accessing these data helped the professor redesign the course and develop a more engaging, student-centered learning experience that both enhanced academic rigor and improved learning outcomes.

Such interventions illustrate the value of not only disseminating relevant and actionable equity data, but also making sure they are widely accessible across campuses. Sharing anonymized student data with faculty, staff and administrators can better inform pedagogy, strengthen how faculty mentor students and guide staff across all disciplines to adjust practices to better support students.

For years, higher education professionals have understood the fundamental importance of accessing and analyzing data such as enrollment trends, graduation rates and even fundraising targets. We must now place at least as much emphasis on nuanced data that are specifically targeted at closing equity gaps. Working together, we can hold a mirror to our own practice and collaboratively identify opportunities to enhance student support.

We in higher education are at a distinct moment, with the pandemic inviting a new wave of innovation and creativity in how we approach student success and equity. Indeed, for many of us, eliminating equity gaps is the calling of our time. By sharing equity data broadly among all members of our campus communities, we can build a collaborative culture that is laser-focused on addressing equity across our institutions.

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