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V3I3: If you can’t measure it …

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” a quote attributed to management guru, Peter Drucker, is a mantra the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) subscribes to with passion. To wit, the NWCCU’s mission statement states that it “accredits institutions of higher education by applying evidence-informed standards and processes to support continuous improvements and promote student achievement and success.”

Similarly, NWCCU’s Standards and Eligibility Requirements specify member institutions must, in the context of their unique mission, establish disaggregated indicators – such as age, race, ethnicity, gender, Pell Grant status, GPA, first generation student status, and more – of student achievement, including success and equity gaps.

The Commission is endeavoring to help institutions identify benchmark quantitative and qualitative indicators in comparison with peer institutions at the regional and national levels, which may be used for institutional continuous improvement to promote student success and to inform planning, decision making, and allocation of resources.

Because NWCCU accredits institutions with unique missions – faith-based, secular, public, private, for-profit, Tribal, community and technical, two-year, four-year, comprehensive research universities – our intent is to help create quantitative data and analytical systems along with a culture of quality, defined as a culture “in which structural/managerial and cultural/psychological elements act in synergy,” to promote continuous improvements.

The Commission’s efforts to help create quantitative data and analytical systems is being facilitated with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) through the Intermediaries for Scale (IFS) and Postsecondary Data Partnership Accelerator (PDP) programs. NWCCU’s purpose and vision are exquisitely aligned with those of BMGF, i.e., focus on data- and evidence-informed student success and closing equity gaps for poor, first generation, and underserved students. Specifically, the goal of BMGF’s IFS project is to “reduce college success disparities by race and income, promote continuous learning and improvement through the use of data, and identify, implement, and evaluate significant campus-level changes in policy and practice.”

Funding from BMGF through the IFS project is being used to undertake surveys and convenings of NWCCU institutions to inventory and understand their capacity and resources, and a pilot group of representative institutions is being supported to drive their self-identified student success initiatives aligned with their unique mission. Concurrently, NWCCU is using a part of these funds to undertake an assessment of its data and analytical capacity, so as to enhance the Commission’s human and technology resources to more effectively support the work of its institutions.

As part of its IFS efforts, NWCCU has created a library of resources for equity work at our institutions. Additionally, a Data Advisory Council and an Equity Advisory Council have been constituted to support NWCCU’s IFS work; the two councils are chaired by Tim Renick and Tia McNair, respectively. Council members are national leaders from across the United States, including NWCCU institutions, and bring significant experiences and expertise on promoting data-informed approaches in support of institutional transformation focused on student success. The two councils will help NWCCU create the path to scale transformative, best-practice approaches to promote evidence-informed student success and close equity gaps at all our institutions.

The nationwide Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP) was created by the National Student Clearinghouse to help institutions of higher education measure and understand student educational progress and outcomes. The goal of the PDP Accelerator project, which is a partnership between BMGF, the National Student Clearinghouse, NWCCU, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC), is to help institutions by the creation of peer networks to promote student outcomes with comprehensive data, analytical tools, and visualization and reporting systems. NWCCU’s PDP Accelerator work will be informed by a combination of surveys, interviews, focus groups, and a review of existing resources. The Reviews will bring together insights on the quality and maturity of data access, infrastructure and technical needs, capacity for high quality analytics, and readiness to disseminate and use data to advance decisions related to postsecondary success. These efforts will include creation of the Data Equity Academy and Data Equity Fellowship program to create a path for deeper understanding of institutional data and capacity and which incorporates equity and ethics to promote positive outcomes for all students.

Much of the efforts throughout higher education focus on quantitative data-based approaches, because progress is easier to measure and quantify. A number of NWCCU institutions seek to also inculcate cultural and spiritual growth in their students, which is difficult to evaluate, because of their subjectivity. As noted above, as part of its culture of quality efforts to promote continuous improvements, NWCCU is seeking to understand and promote development of qualitative, participatory approaches and indicators to support institutional transformation focused on student success and equity gaps.

A number of institutions have capitalized on disaggregated evidence- and data-informed approaches and predictive analytics to significantly enhance graduation rates and close equity gaps. Combined with intrusive advising, evidence, data, and analytics are powerful tools. Additionally, experiences at some institutions have shown that empowering faculty, staff, students, and other relevant individuals to “own and be trained to use data,” thus, democratizing data, are resulting in significant gains in promoting student success and closing equity gaps. Effective strategies also include use of data-informed and other digital and predictive tools to promote community and group interactions that ensures student learning outcomes by focusing on the fundamentals, including personalized education and services, intensive mentoring, intrusive advising and academic coaching, and experiential learning opportunities.

Effective leaders start with helping create a shared vision for the desired outcome and the measures to define the same, and then work backwards to think about how the organization can achieve that outcome. Our hope is that by focusing on promoting the development, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and deployment of quantitative and qualitative indicators of student success, NWCCU can over the next few years provide the tools for our institutions to transform themselves, aligned with their unique missions.

As I end this essay, I invoke another Drucker quote, “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.” It takes leadership to inspire and get the buy-in across the institution to use quantitative and qualitative indicators-informed approaches to promote student success and to close equity gaps.



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