Data, Information and the "Business" of Student Success

By Warren Sandmann, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, William Paterson

Warren Sandmann, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, William Paterson

“After all, the chief business of the American people is business.” 

--President Calvin Coolidge, January 17, 1925 

Perhaps starting with a quotation from the President in office immediately before the Great Depression is not an especially auspicious beginning, and could lead to interpretations that higher education in the United States is poised on a similar precipice—that is not the premise of this article. Instead, the focus here is on the “business” of education—student success. 

Education as a business can be a problematic concept, as many in education (myself included) who began as faculty members or continue as faculty members can be at times a bit leery of the concept that education is a business. The term business can carry the connotation of a transaction, and has the potential of limiting education to a simple transaction—students pay tuition for a degree. We know that education is much more than a transaction, so it is not surprising that from the academic side of higher education, “business” is not always a favorable term. 

If we are to speak of the business of education, then that business is the success of our students. What does that mean? At my institution, William Paterson University, we have an answer to that question: Student Success means making sure that our students are learning what we say they are learning, have the skills and abilities we say they should have, are successfully progressing through their education, and are successfully graduating in a timely fashion.” 

All of higher education, especially public higher education, has been tasked with significantly enhancing the success of our students. At the federal and state political level, there are increasing accountability requirements, calls for limited or reduced costs to students and taxpayers, measurements of student performance after graduation in terms of employment and even starting salaries, and pressure to make sure students complete a degree on time and with limited debt. Regional and specialized accrediting bodies are also increasing the pressure, with requirements to document student learning, meet disciplinary standards, and verify compliance with federal regulations. 

Data about our students, therefore, is essential. To be honest, data about our students is also fairly plentiful—but not always particularly useful or used well. There are often barriers and problems in how we gather, report and analyze data—and there remains, too often, a yawning gap between data and information, as well as between information and action. 

Why is that so?  

Why when there is so much data (and yes, there is still room for more data) are we still struggling to use that data effectively to make needed changes to the “business” of education and help our students succeed in a great fashion? Let’s take a look at some of these barriers and problems. 

Who owns and manages the data?  

Mostly every higher education institution has, to some level, a variation on institutional research—an office (or sometimes a person) who is in charge of data management. Of course, it is never that simple, as many others are involved in the gathering, reporting and analysis. IT is often responsible for developing and managing the programming that runs the reports. Multiple offices are responsible for getting information into the system so that reports can be run. The basic, raw material from which we try to extract meaningful reports is spread all over campus—just trying to get all this material together is a monumental task. Too often, as well, much of this raw material may still reside in databases and other proprietary or legacy systems that don’t talk to each other, or is recorded in such a manner that it can’t be readily accessed and used—text files don’t yield to analysis easily. Different offices may have purchased and installed, over the years, a variety of tools that are used to capture information—but these tools may not be compatible with tools used by other offices and programs. 

Who asks the questions?  

Even in the most well-managed institutional research office, there are often multiple requests for data and analysis, and these requests can be redundant or, worse, in conflict with each other. People who have been at a college or university for some time often learn that there are formal approaches to data requests, and there are also the informal routes to data which may appear to be quicker but may also result in conflicting reports because of the manner in which the request is made or the source from which the data report is made. There may, unfortunately, also be attempts to ask questions and select sources in an effort to help shape a response to suit a particular need. 

How is the data used and how do we move from data to information to action?  

This is probably the thorniest of thickets. Data has meaning in and of itself—there is no such thing as a “simple number.” All data is weighted with meaning even before we start trying to move from data to information to action. The questions we ask, the reports we run, even the format in which the report is produced—all of these reflect explicit or implicit values. The level and type of analysis—the process of moving data to information—also reflects the value of those seeking the information. A good narrative analysis of data is an argument, not an objective summary, and the decision as to what actions to take after the analysis is the clearest reflection of what we want from our data. To consider the cliché: Data does not (or at least should not) drive us; data informs us and provides grist for analysis, and people make decisions and take action after than analysis. 

Back to student success 

The “business” of higher education: Data about our students is needed to help us understand our barriers to student success—what are the consequences, intended and otherwise, of the policies, procedures and practices in which we engage, to the ability of our students to succeed? Do we imperil or aid students by such practices as placing registration holds for multiple reasons academic, financial and other? Do students who withdraw from courses and change majors repeatedly harm or help their chances of success? When is a “C” in a course not really a sign that a student is prepared to move forward? Are students who say they are leaving for financial reasons really having financial difficulties—and to what extent? These and many other questions are at the heart of student success and data (and information and analysis and action) is needed to address these questions and to help us continue with the “business” of education. 

We need better and more effective connection between our data and our practices if we are to meet all the demands being placed on us. More importantly, we need to know as much as possible about what helps our students succeed because that is the purpose or business of higher education. Accountability and accreditation are just tools; educated and skilled students walking across the stage at commencement are the real products of our business. 

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