Thumbnail: Four Ways to Inspire a Data-Informed Culture at Your Institution

How to Inspire a Data-Activated Culture at Your Institution


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Higher education is at a pivotal point as skepticism grows over the value of a degree in the face of rising college costs, declining enrollment, and increasingly complex personal circumstances. The average student profile has shifted and diversified significantly over the past decade, and a one-size-fits-all model won’t suffice.

Challenges such as transactional advising, recycling old course schedules, and uncertain investment in student success initiatives present substantial barriers to student persistence. Despite the institution’s efforts, student outcomes often do not reflect the work put in, creating a “student impact gap.”

A strong data culture and infrastructure are critical to navigating today’s challenges. Leaders across the institution can pave the way by modeling data-informed decision making for others. Institutions can drive better outcomes in an increasingly complex educational landscape by providing resources, creating a safe environment to challenge assumptions, and supporting professional development opportunities that improve data literacy.

Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education

How do we motivate advisors, administrators, and faculty to use the data at their disposal and understand its value? 

  1. Lead by Example: Encourage Leaders to Embrace Data-Driven Decision Making

Regardless of the type of institution or the specific roles within, today’s higher education leaders face a lot of pressure to be data-informed. However, there is a tremendous opportunity for leaders to influence change by action — especially in a culture that can be challenging to shift from how things have always been done. By consistently leveraging data to inform strategic goals and allocate resources, they can set the standard for others to follow. 

Leaders can set campus-wide expectations, provide necessary resources, and create an environment where questioning assumptions is safe and encouraged. Additionally, leaders can guide their institutions toward a more data-centric approach by supporting professional development that enhances data literacy and analytical skills and modeling data-informed decision-making.

  1. Utilize Actionable Insights: Ensure Data Can Forecast and Facilitate Proactive Interventions

Leaders and their teams require data that is not only actionable, accessible, and engaging but also seamlessly integrated into everyday workflows. This integration ensures that data becomes ingrained into institutional operations rather than an additional burden. Relying on historical data poses risks as it may overlook students’ unique behaviors and circumstances. This makes it difficult to accurately predict their likelihood of persisting to the next term and graduating.

By combining engagement, behavioral, and academic data, student success staff can intervene early and prompt precise action for leaders, staff, and students to impact student outcomes in term — before it’s too late. Timely interventions, based on real-time data, can often be the difference between a student successfully completing college or dropping out. Understanding how your data is helping change the future of your institution enables leaders to predict, forecast, and diagnose to inform proactive interventions.

  1. Challenge Assumptions: Shed Practices that Aren’t Serving Your Goals

While there’s no substitute for the expertise and guidance of leaders in higher education institutions, there is reason to validate or challenge our assumptions with comprehensive insights. Informed strategies stem from translating institution-wide data into actionable insights such as persistence and completion likelihood, LMS engagement compared to peers, and course impact on success. This approach significantly enhances persistence and completion outcomes. 

Recognizing different manifestations of risk is essential. For example, a low-performing student on academic probation may face similar risks as a student with a 3.0 GPA who lacks sufficient support to balance school and family obligations.

It’s also important to remember that professional knowledge and experience are irreplaceable and crucial to identifying opportunities to improve student success surfaced by actionable insights. Context is key—a single data point is meaningless without a contextual anchor, such as comparison over time, across groups, or against a standardized measure or goal. The most effective recommendations consider multiple data sources, triangulate to uncover different aspects and dimensions of an issue, and address the unique institutional environment. 

  1. Align with Goals: Integrate Data with Institutional Objectives

Accountability in today’s higher education landscape increasingly focuses on outcomes rather than inputs, making assessing the return on investment for every initiative crucial. For example, if more students are retained than expected, what does this amount to in tuition dollars, or how many more credentials were awarded this term versus the previous one? Designing institutional strategies and processes with measurement in mind ensures that collected data directly informs desired outcomes, driving continuous improvement and student success initiatives.

Moreover, in an environment where every student’s success matters, customizing outreach efforts based on what resonates best with specific groups enhances the effectiveness of support programs. Sharing these efficacy findings with frontline staff empowers them to engage more confidently and proactively with targeted student populations, fostering individualized support and enhancing student engagement.

Cultivating a strong data culture is key to tackling today’s challenges in higher education. Leaders must translate their data into actionable analytics to make smarter decisions, predict issues before they arise, and verify that their strategies align with institutional goals. By doing this, colleges and universities can provide more effective support for students and help them succeed in a rapidly changing environment.

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