Building a Culture of Evidence

Driving change by making data transparent, connected, and actionable

Building a Culture of Evidence

Data-informed decision-making has always been a foundational capacity and routines for achieving equitable outcomes within the Frontier Set. Since the initiative began, each member committed to tracking a set of student-level key performance indicators (KPIs) from a common metrics framework, such as retention and graduation rates, to help ensure all students are taken into account, not just first-time, full-time students. But collecting the data alone is not enough: institutions must build a culture of evidence that not only generates disaggregated data, but makes that data transparent, connects it to institutional goals and priorities, and builds buy-in at all levels of the institution by sharing it widely and training campus stakeholders to use data to identify and act on barriers of access, persistence, and completion among students of color. It’s this wide-spread, resilient culture of evidence that is key to building and executing successful equity-based strategies across an institution.

Building a culture of evidence requires sharing the right data, at the right time, with the right context.

The University Innovation Alliance, one of the Frontier Set Intermediaries, saw their institutions (Georgia State University, Arizona State University, and University of Central Florida) all articulate two general types of data they focus on: reportable data and actionable data. While these sets may overlap, in general the reportable data is “slower” and more long-term (e.g., graduation and retention rates), and is required by and provided to their boards and other stakeholders. The actionable data is “closer to practice,” and it works on a shorter time frame and on a more granular level (e.g., registration, enrollment, online engagement). This kind of data can help measure the success of interventions, monitor student progress, and identify areas for innovation.

All this data—reportable and actionable, long-term and short-term—requires the context of tools and training in order to spark action. The best-designed data dashboard, when deployed without context, lacks the power to drive widespread change. When data is analyzed and shared with intentional tools and training, it can help create a common vocabulary and lens for change that become the foundation for a culture of evidence.

Student-level KPIs and other data can be transformative, but only if they are transparent, understood, and appropriately used by institutions and state systems.

As Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, noted: “If disaggregated data is not shared widely, and college stakeholders are not provided with time and venues to discuss how it relates to their jobs in meaningful ways, and if leaders do not discuss why it is an important issue for the college and connect it to the mission, then building equity into the college culture as a shared value will be difficult, and present a barrier to enacting change.” The Aspen Institute, which supports the twelve Frontier Set community colleges, agreed, noting that these moments of shared sense-making around data are key to creating alignment and coherence as colleges look to assess and implement changes.

Creating infrastructure and routines to collect and disaggregate data can be a strong first step in creating a culture of evidence. San Jacinto College noted that a lack of disaggregated data that shows how and to what extent students of color are affected on standard performance outcomes and, more broadly, a lack of data-driven decision-making at all levels, are primary barriers to developing shared, actionable, equity-centered strategies. Similarly, Jackson State University, a historically Black university located in Mississippi, cited the incorporation of KPIs into its daily data operational principles as a key contributor to a shift “from storing data on a shelf to using data to make critical decisions”—decisions that have improved equitable outcomes on their campus. Again, this shift toward actionable, “close to the work” data is key.

At the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), which includes 13 community colleges, they use disaggregated data across region, income, race, gender, and other demographics to measure student success, and they also make interactive data dashboards publicly available. Pointing to the key role culture plays in institutional transformation, TBR has “tried to make [data] more a part of the way we do business than a current initiative.”

Transparency is key: to support transformation, data must be shared widely and regularly, paired with thoughtful analysis that helps decision-makers better understand the important nuances of the data.

This transparency applies to both the long-term “reportable” data and the more granular “actionable” data, to use the University Innovation Alliance’s terms—and the transparency shows up both internally at an institution and externally with key stakeholders. Many Frontier Set institutions and systems disseminate data dashboards and make regular data presentations to their governing boards and faculty. At Fayetteville State University, student outcome data is communicated to executive- and mid-level leadership with a strong expectation that they share it with their direct reports.

At the University of Central Florida, a large research institution, leaders develop and distribute interactive fact books with insight dashboards and detailed student-level reports, all of which can be disaggregated by race, Pell eligibility, and other factors for use by faculty and staff at all levels of the university: “By opening up the data, cross-functional teams can recognize areas of excellence to support scaling of ideas through the entire university.” San Jacinto College, a community college in Houston, analyzes data daily, looking at differences across variables, including race/ethnicity, gender, first-generation status, and socioeconomic status. These analyses are used across the college—from faculty and department chairs to student services to top leaders—to inform decision-making. KPIs, including course success and college graduation rates, are shared with the Board of Trustees each month, and made publicly available on the college’s website.

Building data literacy with a racial equity lens is critical to helping decision-makers and frontline practitioners produce actionable insights that lead to equitable improvements.

As the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) noted, early efforts toward a culture of evidence were hindered as “we were drowning in data, but it was rare to find someone who had the time, energy, or know-how to wade through hundreds of columns and thousands of rows for usable insights.” As they built data-interpretation capabilities and trust between teams, leaders at UTRGV were able to put the institution’s disaggregated data to use in developing a new advising curriculum and implementing a new initiative for students who are not yet college-ready and/or are undecided about their major. Columbia Basin College in Washington state offers data “Jedi training” to all staff and faculty, an effort that has led to the incorporation and use of aggregate data becoming more widespread on campus.

Building considerations of racial equity into data use is also important. Santa Fe College in Florida is working to increase data literacy across campus “so that disaggregated data showing inequalities is broadly discussed and used to make compelling cases for change.” Leaders there hope that as a result, those working most closely with students—including faculty and learning support staff—will be fully informed and engaged in determining how best to respond to student needs and opportunities.

Across the Frontier Set, many institutions noted that an existing culture of evidence provided the infrastructure for continuing to implement equity-based strategies and serve students in the face of unforeseen challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

When Davidson-Davie Community College in North Carolina transitioned to remote learning in March 2020, they collected and examined additional quantitative and qualitative data in an effort to understand how students responded to the modifications made to instructional programs and student support services. Data on student success outcomes from spring 2020 were compared with longitudinal data to inform what modifications were needed for fall semester. “Trends were analyzed, and strategies put in place to improve outcomes,” they wrote.

Jackson State University also noted how their prior work set them up to respond well to new student needs resulting from the pandemic. “Our work with the Frontier Set positioned us to use data to conceptualize, inform, and actualize our response to the disruptions caused by COVID-19,” they wrote. Leaders at Jackson State used key metrics and data to assess students’ technological needs, faculty and staff readiness, delivery of student services, and their agility to transition from traditional to all online learning, all in a matter of days.

Also building on an existing culture of evidence as the events of 2020 unfolded, Fayetteville State University was moved to increase the use of operational dashboards that provide leadership with a comprehensive snapshot of performance in student recruitment, enrollment, and resource management. They noted that “the analytics included with the student success software and the development of applications (apps) have supported a better understanding of students’ utilization of available campus resources.”

At Sinclair Community College in Ohio, the BLM movement reinforced the resolve to continue to utilize data as a tool to drive racially equitable strategies that mitigate barriers, strengthen student growth, and accelerate completion. Drawing from a long-established, data-informed practice, they reflected: “We understand that data analytics, in addition to a heightened institutional awareness and collective actions, will have direct and positive impacts on student success.”

Achieving more equitable outcomes for students requires cultivating a culture of evidence that goes beyond data-gathering infrastructure—a culture that calls for a commitment to transparency and embedding right-size, data-driven metrics into strategic goals for stakeholders at all levels. Frontier Set members have found that these approaches can help practitioners understand how policies and practices impact student groups differently, which can in turn lead to more meaningful change. Building a widely shared and long-lasting culture of evidence goes beyond initiatives—it requires connecting data experts and infrastructure with the frontline, student-facing work. By making these connections across the institution and bringing data to life with tools and training, data can become a routine resource for practitioners and decision-makers. The hard work of building this culture, and the infrastructure that makes it possible, positions institutions "to advance racial equity and student outcome efforts—and, as proven in 2020, also enables institutions to quickly and confidently make decisions that faculty and staff can stand behind when unexpected challenges arise.