Sourcing Student Voices: Backing Up Data with Stories

Building on a belief in the power of quantitative data, Frontier Set members solicit qualitative data to add depth and understanding to positively inform change


While Frontier Set institutions and systems seek to build robust infrastructures for gathering and analyzing quantitative data, there is also a broad commitment to contextualizing this data with more qualitative information in order to build effective equity-centered strategies. Student voices can give authenticity and authority to numbers, provide important context and nuance to quantitative observations, and create buy-in from historically marginalized groups. Or, as the University of Central Florida said, “By listening to underrepresented students, higher education administrators can craft plans to make our campuses more equitable.”

Including the voices of students of color and nontraditional students was a key part of Lorain County Community College’s efforts to build on its successful equity-based strategies. The school used surveys and focus groups to better understand student perspectives. Results “pointed to the importance of belonging and opportunities for students to learn about racism,” and led to implementing a number of strategies, including the launch of Commodore Conversations, an event designed to make space for students, faculty, and staff to speak on race and equity and learn about forms of allyship—and for Lorain leaders to listen and learn.

Over the past five years, Sinclair College has used focus groups and quantitative data to gain insights on student groups, such as Black students and students over the age of 25. Information gleaned from these focus groups is used to “make more deliberate decisions, mitigate barriers, and improve student success.” This means the school has quantitative data to show improvement, paired with student anecdotes to tell a powerful story. “The African American Male Initiative is not only a college program for Black men; it is saving the lives of Black males,” one student shared. “It saved me.”

In examining the gaps in completion rates for courses, Florida International University dug into qualitative survey data and found that employment and other obligations make it hard for some students to attend class. Having this information “allows faculty and staff to develop strategies that may help address some of these obstacles.”

Ask “not just the student ambassadors or members of the honors college,” they wrote. “Ask struggling students and quiet students, those who aren’t used to being asked for their opinion.”

When data showed that Black students at Davidson-Davie Community College had the most difficulty completing courses in spring 2020, qualitative data from surveys helped shed light on the causes of this gap: notably, loss of employment, lack of devices to complete schoolwork, and increased prevalence of COVID-19 infection. As a result, the college decided to both hold some in-person classes in fall 2020 and make hotspots and laptops available to ensure students had the necessary tools to complete their work.

Leveraging qualitative data and stories not only helps increase success within student support and services, but also benefits and improves academic curriculum and teaching. The University System of Georgia (USG) took action on student input when a survey indicated student success in math is closely linked to the student’s perception that the math they are studying has a purpose. For students studying a broad range of disciplines—including the social sciences, health sciences, business, and education—the most relevant area of mathematics may be statistics, a field in which knowledge and understanding has become increasingly important for success. In response, USG invited institutions to pilot a “Statistics Pathway” that allows participating institutions to offer an elementary statistics course as part of the approved core sequence.

Sam Houston State University identified the inclusion of student voices as a key step in making any far-reaching decisions to increase equity on campus.

Data is the bedrock of creating sustainable change across the Frontier Set.

The combination of quantitative data and student voices, with other qualitative data incorporated into the equation, has helped take equity-centered strategies to the next level. As Johnson C. Smith University noted, listening to those students who have been systematically excluded is “paramount to successfully shift the narrative and show results.”