Seeking Better Data in Hopes of Better Outcomes

April 28, 2021

The following article is from Insider Higher Ed

Community college leaders want to collect more data about the basic needs of students in order to help them have better academic outcomes. The leaders also care about data that serve social justice imperatives, but many feel their campuses lack the resources to gather this information in a more holistic way.

These goals were among the findings outlined in a new report by the research group Ithaka S+R, which surveyed more than 125 community college leaders, 70 percent of them provosts, between October and December 2020. The survey examined how the leaders' campuses collect and disaggregate data about student needs, the success metrics they use, and their data priorities going forward.

The report is an effort of the Basic Needs Initiative, a cohort of seven organizations and institutions undertaking projects related to student needs, and is funded by a $3.1 million investment from the ECMC Foundation. The foundation supports projects focused on improving outcomes for underserved students.

It provides “the language and also the framing” for how community college leaders define student success, said Angela Sanchez, the foundation’s college success program officer. “Is student success … only a matter of persistence and GPA, or do we really care about the health and well-being of our students? Then, what does health and well-being include?”

The survey found that administrators mainly focused on the traditional student success metrics they rely on for funding and accreditation, such as retention and graduation rates. But 80 percent of them felt basic needs, like food and housing security, were priorities, and 75 percent saw physical and mental health as critical to students thriving academically.

“It’s clear that leaders are really on board with basic needs provision as part of their mission,” said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, co-author of the report and manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R. “They really see this as part of what they owe to their student body, and they also really see the tie between moving the needle on student basic needs and other kinds of outcomes like graduation, retention, course completion.”

Administrators also showed heightened interest in racial equity. The share of community college leaders who described social justice issues as a high priority doubled compared to a survey conducted in 2019. In line with that thinking, three-quarters of provosts listed socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity as the most important categories by which to disaggregate their data. More than 80 percent reported they want more fine-tuned data across these particular subgroups.

Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, served as an adviser for the Ithaka S+R report and sees her institution reflected in its findings, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

“Both the pandemic and the reignited civil rights movement pushed us to understand the historical and social context in which our students live and learn,” said Eddinger. “We saw great disparities as we survey the damage done by the pandemic, and the frustrations and brutality that fueled the protest … It is not a simple case of academic performance, but the learning of the student in an ecosystem that constantly exerts historical and current socioeconomic forces upon them.”

The report also pointed out examples of how community colleges aren’t disaggregating their data. Provosts showed less effort toward, and interest in, data disaggregated by sexual orientation and gender identity or data focused on student parents.

“When you look at it in terms of how the provosts are looking at, it could be that it is a smaller amount of students at their campus, but then at the same time, these are students with the largest level of need at some points,” said co-author Melissa Blankstein, surveys analyst at Ithaka S+R. “Provosts are kind of juggling what they can do … versus what they are interested in knowing more [about].”

The survey results suggest financial obstacles prevent community colleges from collecting the comprehensive student needs data that the institutions' leaders want. Larger colleges tended to collect more data on student needs than smaller colleges, the report found. In general, student data are often centered around the supports campuses can already afford to offer or what accreditors or state lawmakers want as proof of student success. About 90 percent of campus leaders reported that accreditors majorly influenced their data collection practices, and 81 percent felt the same way about their state education department or college system.

Eddinger doesn’t believe Bunker Hill currently has the resources it needs to get a fuller picture of entering students’ needs. She said the institution is looking into software that could help administrators get more detailed information about students.

The college collaborated with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice -- formerly the Wisconsin HOPE Lab -- on a set of surveys on food and housing insecurity among students. Those surveys continue to inform the support services the campus now offers.

Eddinger would ideally like to see the institution adopt regular student needs surveys, become “more adept” at accounting for students with multiple ethnicities and undertake a “deeper disaggregation” of Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Another obstacle to that work is how student needs data are collected, the report noted. Academic success metrics and data on students’ basic needs are often decentralized and gathered by different offices, which overshadows the inherent connection between the two kinds of data. While academic affairs departments, which report to the provost, tend to lead on student success metrics, student affairs departments more often collect data on student basic needs.

While there’s nothing “inherently wrong” with that, “I think for us, there is a strong relationship between the kinds of metrics that historically have been centralized and the types of metrics that have historically been prioritized,” said Wolff-Eisenberg. “The extent to which data are centralized, particularly within institutional research, tends to kind of be a proxy for the value of doing that kind of work.”

Eddinger described more centralized, holistic data collection on student needs as crucial new territory for community colleges.

Without such data, administrators assume, “if you get through your college-level courses, you’re going to succeed,” she said. But “no, that’s not true, because you could be financially unstable at the same time. And no matter how good you are academically, you might not be able to tolerate the financial risk of continuing. I think we’re at the beginning of this new frontier in some ways, but it’s probably one of the most important pieces of work we have to do.”


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