Every sector of America has been buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a shifting economy, and the world of higher education is no exception. Enrollment has declined steeply, with 85% of 2022 losses coming from four-year schools. Definitions of student success are changing, and there has been a rise in alternative degrees and credentials, micro-credentials, and apprenticeships. Understanding these changes and their effects is going to require not only new data, but new kinds of data.
On Thursday, experts from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) joined with leaders from the community college and educational nonprofit worlds to talk about the changes ahead.
The new normal, in which a four-year path to a four-year degree is less standard, will require an understanding of the breadth of the education community, said Roberta Hyland, chief data officer of the NSC. New measures of success will have to be developed, reflecting more individualized student goals and preferences.
Classic higher ed measures like persistence and retention are already being adapted for the times, according to Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research and executive director of the NSC. In studying students with some college and no credential, the NSC saw that some stop-outs were planned and that students might be planning to alternate time in the workforce and at school. This led to the creation of a measure that tracked if students returned to school over a longer time frame, which they called perseverance.
Institutions will also need to collect data that goes beyond standard measures like courses and into more subtle areas, according to Shapiro. Data scientists will need to try to measure quality of skills and learning in both educational and employment environments.
The Maricopa Community College district, which includes 10 schools, nine of which are Hispanic Serving Institutions, is trying to do just that, according to Lori Lindenberg, the district director of enterprise analytics and strategy. She described it as a shift from the sorts of analytics that were shaped by compliance with federal regulations to the sorts of analytics that a business would use—including return on investment. This involves the collection of transactional and behavioral data, as well as measures like student wages.
This last form of data highlighted a concern raised by Shapiro: that the new data must be paired with an understanding of the impact of bias—both historically and in the present day.
“When you’re trying to measure the quality of learning or of educational programs by way of earnings outcomes, you really have to understand the ways in which persistent biases in the workforce of all sorts can affect those outcomes, regardless of the level of skill that the student demonstrates or that the institution provided,” he said. “We’re trying to find better ways to be transparent about the biases that we see in the data.”
Another issue is that the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming for leaders at schools to process, leading them to miss information that could help them.
“I didn’t realize that, for some people, a dashboard is a data dump,” said Lindenberg. The Maricopa district now offers a spectrum of presentations to executives that includes documents that put data into a digestible narrative form.
Panelists summed up the challenges ahead by giving their goals for the next five years. Linderberg hopes to capture the student experience by integrating data from all of the district’s systems, to consistently assess student learning outcomes, and to automate compliance reporting, allowing her team to focus on business analytics.
Shaprio’s was simpler, and perhaps more ambitious.
“I’d just love to find a way to measure and recognize all the emerging dimensions of student success that don’t get counted today,” he said.
Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected].