The Intersection of Data and Equity in Higher Ed


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Civitas Learning’s Senior Fellow and member of the consulting team, Dr. Gerardo E. de los Santos, recently participated in the World Academic Summit at UC Berkeley hosted by Times Higher Education. Presenting on a panel with de los Santos were Bridget Burns, Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance and Beth Davis, Chief Executive of the PAR Framework. Madeleine Evans, Product Director for Times Higher Education, moderated the session. The topic being discussed was: Data and Equity: How New Data Strategies Can Address Education Disparities. We took a moment to follow up with Dr. de los Santos, and asked him to expand on the conversation.

Higher Ed at the Intersection of Data and Equity

De los Santos believes higher education is experiencing an exciting evolutionary moment with regard to the intersection of data and equity. “We’re still in the advent of higher education collecting data with the aim of creating a culture of evidence,” he said. “That we need to prove students are learning what we say they are learning is still a relatively new addition to our work. For decades we’ve used anecdotes and qualitative stories.”

Evolving from Anecdotes to a Culture of Evidence

“We are moving from reliance on the Carnegie unit as proof that learning occurred — because students were in a classroom — to a culture of evidence. We are evolving from the anecdotes and assumptions we once had to rely on as we collected data from multiple, disparate silos. What’s promising is other sectors have a lead on this evidence-based work – business and healthcare specifically. We can learn from their leaders in the best use of specific data and analytics to take what has been oceans of unconnected data and now make sense of it to better support our students. We are unveiling an exciting way to use data that has never been possible before in higher education. We are not just using historical data, but also now adding active, current data — institution specific data — that through analytics is helping us create powerful predictive models. It’s a trifecta of data that we previously simply didn’t have. We can thoughtfully integrate technology, expertise and partnerships to be able to leverage data in this new way.”

The Moral Imperative

There is much talk in higher education about the need to graduate more students to remain globally competitive, but the imperative extends beyond economics, de los Santos says. “There is a moral obligation to provide education opportunities for all students who want it. This is why all of us in higher education go to work each day,” he said. “But despite our previous best efforts, and the economic and social imperative for doing so, the U.S. has been tumbling in global rankings. We are seeing the negative ramifications. By comparison to other countries our literacy rates and our math acumen have faltered. Our global competitiveness is at stake here. “

Using Analytics to Help Define Pathways

De los Santos remains hopeful and optimistic, however, given the new opportunities facing higher education. “The great news is we can use analytics to address this previous failure and provide better pathways to students. Pathways are where we can improve. There are 35 million U.S. citizens who started college but left with no credential. Those are students who either were never put on a clear pathway, or who fell off. With the data and analytics we have now, we can leverage information and put it directly in the hands of advisors, counselors, faculty, and students in ways we have never able to do to before. We have insights into student behaviors that allow us to provide timely nudges and give positive inspiration to get and keep students on path. We have the resources to know who needs help and when. But even more than that, we can run models that tell institutions what has previously been a missing critical piece of the student success puzzle – what is really working, and for whom?”

He applauds the addition of these critical insights and findings as necessary support for all of those who have been working so diligently at universities and colleges to help. “There has been great work by passionate, committed people doing the best with what they had. But this is the next evolution of that – now we can build on their commitment with this culture of evidence that let’s them know where to lean in.”

Demography is not Destiny

Another advantage de los Santos sees to the intersection of data, equity and higher education is the ability to shatter previous limitations based on demography. “In the past we had limited data and had to make certain assumptions. We worked diligently to support student segments we could see were not performing as well as others – but had to do so in broad-brush strokes. Our intelligence was based on aggregates and best practices; and if you don’t have the right information to properly inform action and decision-making then it’s hard to support the individual needs of students no matter how hard you try. For faculty, advisors and counselors this is an extraordinary time. They no longer have to generalize actions by student segments when what we really need is personalization and understanding of the individual. Even within one student segment — say for example Hispanic male students who are first time in college — what one student needs at a given moment may differ greatly from another even in the same segment. It was never possible before now to really dive into the data and see that at the individual level. What we are seeing now through sophisticated analytics is helping us understand that demography is not destiny.”

The Road Ahead

As someone who has dedicated a career to the topic of access and equity in higher education, de los Santos sees opportunity abounding with the use of analytics. “We can start to connect sectors,” he said. “We can begin to make true systemic change through federated data and collaborations in ways we never could before. It’s not just about sitting down with transfer partners and talking about aligning curriculum and standard articulation agreements. We can dive deep and understand how to help students along the entire student pathway. We are able to see a whole new array of insights with clarity and have opportunities to help every student succeed. But what’s both exciting and challenging about this work is it’s not a Band-Aid. It’s a cultural work. It requires leadership, commitment and understanding that this requires a perpetual cycle of learning to best support our students. It’s wonderful to see the array of institutions in this work. We have private, public, non-profit, proprietary, two-year, four-year — the full spectrum.”

Dr. Gerardo E. de los Santos

Dr. Gerardo E. de los Santos is a Senior Fellow for Civitas Learning. Prior to joining Civitas, De los Santos served The League for Innovation in the Community College for nearly 17 years, presiding for over a decade as President and CEO. The League is an international organization dedicated to catalyzing the community college movement. De los Santos is a sought-after speaker in higher education and has authored and co-authored more than 50 publications, most recently including The Key Trends in Community Colleges Report. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the prestigious 2015 ETS O’Banion Prize in Education for his significant contributions to teaching and learning, and the 2009 International Leadership Award from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development of the University of Texas at Austin. De los Santos earned an AA degree from Mesa Community College in Arizona, a BA from the University of California at Berkeley, a Masters in English from Arizona State University and a PhD in Educational Administration from the University of Texas at Austin.

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