Author: HEI Team


Making Data Meaningful: Education Design Lab

Making data meaningful: HEI formatted data profiles as Instagram slides to help make the data more widely accessible to local communities.

For any university or college, understanding local economic opportunity and the hopes and goals of community members is imperative for building responsive education programs that meet the needs of employers, learners, and workers. This is especially true for community colleges, who hold a vital community role in bridging offered degrees and certificates with employer demand for jobs. Yet, local economic data are rarely made highly accessible or presented in a creative way that is friendly to a wide audience. Economic projections and local demographic data usually come in the form of dense, hard-to-read reports full of line graphs.

At HEI, one of our favorite endeavors is to make data accessible for a wide audience. We’ve recently partnered with our client, Education Design Lab, to help them accomplish this goal for one cohort of their partner institutions. The Lab is an innovative organization that co-designs and builds equitable, learner-centered approaches with colleges, universities, employers, foundations, regions, and other partners. They kick off each of their design challenges with a series of “gallery walks,” bringing together a wide swath of local community leaders, learners, local media, and others around quantitative and qualitative data that paints a comprehensive picture of the experience of learners and the local community today. For their BRIDGES Rural design challenge, the Lab has brought together a cohort of rural community colleges across the nation to ask: How might we strengthen the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities?

The Power of Infographics

To make economic data accessible to the audiences interested in the above question, HEI put together data profiles, formatted as Instagram slides. This accessible format made the data friendly to a wide audience and helped to inform the community about current demographics and future opportunities in the local area. Community colleges who were offered these data profiles learned more about what local populations they weren’t currently serving and how to tailor programs to meet potential learners where they are. “Our community college partners had never seen data put together in such a digestible, easy-to-understand format,” says Miriam Swords Kalk, Education Designer for BRIDGES, Education Design Lab. “It’s been a real game-changer for them to have access to such rich information about their local communities and surrounding regions to inform the design of new programs.”


Staff Spotlight: Elexus Robinson, Research Assistant

HEI invites you to get to know our fantastic staff members. Each month, we will highlight a different colleague. This month, learn about Elexus Robinson’s expertise and what drives her professionally.

Elexus Robinson is a Research Assistant at Higher Ed Insight. Her previous work experiences include spearheading the national Bonner Leadership program at a public research university, reviewing program educational data to address the socio-emotional needs of military children, and learning to improve community initiatives among the youth and adult interactions at the National Center for the Prevention of Community Violence. Elexus’s approach to research is to foster communities and promote social agency that addresses educational and social concerns. As an educator, Elexus has taught courses on the practices of community engagement and civic identity; she encourages students in topics of social justice, evaluating the systemic consequences of community stakeholders and the use of relevant research data to address community concerns. Elexus received her BA in Sociology and Anthropology with a double minor in Human Rights & Conflict Resolutions and Dance from Christopher Newport University and her MA in Public Sociology from George Mason University.

What first drew you to work in higher education?

My sociology professors from my alma mater had a lot to do with my desire to work in higher education. I specifically wanted to be just like them and mentor and teach students while also conducting phenomenal research. I loved the passion they had for their work but also the mutual respect they had for each other. I wanted what they had, and I wanted to be a part of that. One professor, Dr. Johnny Finn, invited me to be a research assistant on a National Park Services research project at the Antietam National Battlefield that the entire department was collaborating on. The experience of writing with them, going out into the field with them, partnering with other students, and speaking/interviewing locals did wonders to this first-gen kid and I was like, oh yeah I want to do this for the rest of my life!

How would you describe your current work/the work you’re most passionate about?

Any work that involves advancing Black culture, art, and history: I am all for it. Currently, I am involved or assist in projects that directly or indirectly advance the culture. For example, I am a part of a participatory action research (PAR) project that examines first-generation women of the African Diaspora’s experiences, and this research has become a space of healing, trust, and vulnerability. This work heavily involves mending the past, present, and the future, where a lot of my theoretical interests lie.  

In addition, I’m all for any work that allows me to apply a critical lens I am passionate about. My current work at HEI pertains to educational attainment, and I was shocked to learn how many resources are available for underserved communities. It was a lot more than I expected. Unfortunately, knowledge about said resources is unheard of in a majority of marginalized communities. For me, I’m motivated to continue the work by asking, how do we help students to be eligible and aware of the additional support available for them to pursue a higher education? How many dreams are deferred or not even cultivated due to guarded in-house knowledge or the lack of engagement by stakeholders? I love helping and interacting with student populations, particularly in higher education and the work I do at HEI reflects that.

What gives you hope in the work you do?

This work at times can be unforgiving or even draining on one’s faculties, so as a woman of faith and believing in and answering to a higher authority keeps me accountable not only to myself but to every person I come in contact with. My hope comes from a source that knows no end, so when I’m tapped out or if even the best of humanity is tapped out, I put my hope in God knowing that the good work we do will not be in vain.

What is your favorite part of working at HEI and with HEI’s clients?

What has been my favorite part so far about working at HEI would have to be the amount of learning I have gained in such a short time! I am a student by nature, and I am adamant about keeping myself mentally engaged and even challenged. HEI has provided me the space to learn a lot of practical and technical skills that is sometimes overlooked when going through the academy. HEI is definitely the home I would say that’s cultivating me to be a more well-rounded scholar and professional.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I really enjoy the work that I do and the opportunity it affords me to be compassionate and critical. It is such a privilege to practice what I love and I am so excited to be a part of the HEI team. I look forward to the awesome work that will come our way!


Client Spotlight: Virginia’s Mellon Pathways Program

Pathways Program logo
Mellon Pathways Program

HEI is proud to shine the spotlight on the impactful and exciting work of our client, the Mellon Pathways Program, a partnership between John Tyler Community College, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The program equips students with the knowledge, support, and resources needed to complete their associate degree at either community college and transfer to VCU to complete their bachelor’s degree. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provides grant support.

Micol Hutchison, Director of the Pathways Program, says that the mission of the program is to “simplify, demystify, and support student transfer starting at the community college level, long before the actual transfer takes place.” She adds that the Pathways Program is also dedicated to “creating community and using the arts and humanities as a vehicle for engaging, exciting, and inspiring students.”

First Transfer Group

This fall, the very first group of Pathways students—20 total—will be transferring to VCU. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, this group of students has demonstrated resilience and built a strong sense of community. Hutchison recalls initially being concerned about the interpersonal connections that might be lost when the group’s meetings were moved from in-person to Zoom. Remarkably, because Zoom has allowed a larger group of students to gather at a given time, an even stronger sense of community has been developed. Students gather for arts and humanities conversations, career exploration, book discussions, and other aspects related to their educational pathways.

HEI has supported the Pathways Program as a grant evaluation consultant since its establishment in 2019. Hutchison shares, “Both Tashera [Gale] and John [Archacki] have been such supporters of the work we’re trying to do. They’ve been helpful and supportive of integrating equity and diversity into the program’s work.”

May 13 @ 6 pm ET: Mellon Research Fellows Colloquium

Pathways students have the opportunity to apply to become a Mellon Research Fellow, through which they receive a stipend to support a research project in the humanities or arts. They work with a VCU faculty member and a community college mentor and present their work at an annual colloquium. This year’s gathering is scheduled for May 13th at 6 pm ET and will be livestreamed on the program’s Facebook page. We encourage you to check out the exciting work from this year’s fellows, which include research papers, a podcast series, documentary films, and visual arts.


What We’re Reading…

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
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Tait Kellogg, PhD, Director of Research & Strategic Services
The College Transparency Act – 117th United States Congress, 1st Session
KEY TAKEAWAY: “I am closely following this bipartisan act, which proposes the creation of a national student-level data system—tracking student postsecondary outcomes at institutions nationwide.”

Elexus Robinson, Research Assistant
“The Equality Act and the End of ‘Females'” By Mary Rice Hasson in Newsweek
KEY TAKEAWAY: “Very interesting read that provides a differing stance on the use of the term ‘sex’ within the Equality Act versus the term ‘female.’ It’s an opinion piece published in February 2021, providing a civil critique to how we define the differences between the identities of sex and gender along biological, legal, and moral lines.”

Kate Potterfield, Marketing & Communications Director
“Building Trust: What communicators—and their institutions—needs to prioritize to create a more inclusive campus” by Teresa Valerio Parrot on Inside Higher Ed
KEY TAKEAWAY: “This opinion piece draws on recent studies and best practices to provide insight into ensuring that the voices of students of color are fully heard and valued across college campuses. I’ve always believed that communications work is only as strong as the work it represents—a point that rang true in this piece. Words matter only as much as they reflect real actions to build an environment of trust, inclusion, and equity.”


Staff Spotlight: Donté McGuire, Research Analyst

HEI invites you to get to know our fantastic staff members. Each month, we will highlight a different colleague. This month, learn about Donté McGuire’s expertise and what drives him professionally.

Donté McGuire, MEd, serves as a Research Analyst at Higher Ed Insight. Donté’s approach is characterized by his emphasis on collaboration, genuine curiosity, and deep appreciation for both research scholarship and practitioner knowledge. He has experience in various educational contexts including international education, high school re-entry and completion, college access, residence life and housing, program evaluation, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. He is a doctoral candidate in the University of Maryland’s Higher Education program and is earning a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. Donté’s scholarship focuses on improving educational access and success for marginalized groups, cross-cultural education and understanding, and culturally competent leadership. He earned a MEd in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University and a BA in Psychology with a minor in Sociology from Wake Forest University.

What first drew you to work in higher education?

Like most things in my career, I kind of “happened upon” higher education. In the first five years after earning my undergraduate degree, I worked in various education fields. For example, I taught in Copiapó, Chile, and Accra, Ghana; led a high-school reentry program in my hometown; and helped to administer a college access program housed at UNC Chapel Hill. 

This work in college access first introduced me to the field of higher education as a profession. Honestly, and looking back a bit funny, I thought working on a college campus meant I would have little-to-no work during the summer months. I soon found out that was the case for most of the people in the office I worked in—however, for my program summer was actually one of our busiest seasons.

How would you describe your current work/the work you’re most passionate about?

In general, I am most passionate about any work that is rooted in expanding opportunities, creating or sustaining just systems, and/or providing equitable resources. With that said, I’m most excited about my work with FORTE House, which provides a path for formerly incarcerated individuals to flourish in society through postsecondary education, housing, technology, and holistic support services. It has been an exciting opportunity for me to learn and grow my own skill set, while contributing to very critical work.

What gives you hope in the work you do?

Related to my previous answer, working with FORTE House founding executive director, Tia Ryans, and two of her colleagues, Hanif Parker and Karen Kaplan, has given me hope. I believe the world needs more Black feminist leadership and more people supporting Black feminist leadership, particularly those who are not Black women—and in my limited experience I have found Tia and her team are a great example of this. I have been deeply inspired by Tia’s vision, innovation, and leadership, and the incredible impact she and her team have within their communities.

What is your favorite part of working at HEI and with HEI’s clients?

The three things I enjoy most are engaging my curiosity, meeting and working with new people, and bringing together scholar and practitioner knowledge. I am an eternally curious person and to me there’s no question too small or too dull to consider. At the core of my work as a researcher are a ton of questions that—while all being connected to higher education—range quite a bit. 

We also have a very collaborative approach to our work, where we seriously consider client feedback to research design and deliverables. I look forward to traveling to meet some of these folks in person once it’s safe to do so again.

Lastly, as a PhD candidate, I appreciate the value of academic theories to understanding the world around me. At the same time, I very much value the things I’ve come to know from my professional experience being in community with, listening to, and learning alongside colleagues—or what some may call “practice.” I realize in some ways the dichotomy between theory and practice is a false one, yet it has real consequences in shaping the work environments I’ve been a part of. So I like that I can bring together both my  “practice” knowledge and “theory” knowledge as I design and implement research projects.


York College’s NASA MAA: Inspiring a Generation of Diverse STEM Professionals

african american scientist preparing for geography workshop sitting behind window with huge palm tree in library
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This month, we’re proud to shine the spotlight on our client, York College, for whom we serve as evaluator for its NASA Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Aerospace Academy (MAA) Program. York MAA endeavors to realize the following program goals:

  1. Inspire a diverse student population to pursue continuing education and careers in STEM.
  2. Engage and educate these students using rigorous, fun, hands-on, grade-specific, NASA-designed STEM curricula.
  3. Promote understanding and appreciation of STEM education by actively engaging the greater MAA population, including families, pre- and in-service teachers, and schools through targeted family activities and community partnerships.

The opportunities for STEM exposure and engagement afforded to students by York MAA are transformative, in terms of access to innovative STEM programming, and by extension, the tangibility of educational and professional promise. This potential is of great significance when considering that these STEM and lifelong benefits are disproportionately limited to learners from the demographic backgrounds (e.g., Black and Latinx students, girls) and environmental contexts (i.e., urban neighborhoods) served by York MAA. The achievements of York MAA need to be highlighted and celebrated, as it supports the dismantling of would-be barriers to equitable STEM access and participation, catalyzing a generation of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. Many past York MAA participants have gone on to study STEM, earn degrees in STEM, and/or work in STEM or STEM-adjacent careers. These young professionals often attribute York MAA on some level for their interest in, pursuit of, and/or success in STEM. 

The diversity within the program does not conclude with students—teachers and staff also represent a multitude of backgrounds, contributing to the culture of positive science learning and sense of belonging. Teachers often discuss their passion for this work, sharing how “seeing and supporting children that look like me” within the sciences is rewarding. Teachers and aides aspire to instill a sense of positive science efficacy within students, expanding their perspective of what it means to do science, and more importantly, transforming perceptions regarding who can participate in these disciplines—both of which speaks to the national imperative to broaden representation within STEM.

York MAA’s contributions to inspiring young learners of color from urban communities is not only understood by program staff but also acknowledged by the larger community. Anecdotes from parents and families, coverage by local media, and recognition by STEM professionals and societies—to name a few—demonstrate York MAA’s reputation as a high quality, effective STEM education model that contributes a wealth of value to the community. The success of the program is undoubtedly influenced by the tremendous leadership of Dr. Nazrul Khandaker, Director of CUNY York’s NASA MAA Program. His passion, dedication, and expertise make him an incomparable asset to York MAA, Queens, NY, and the broader STEM and education communities. To learn more about this work, read this article about motivating students in STEM authored by Dr. Khandaker.

Do you have a NASA MUREP project you need to evaluate? Or perhaps one you’d like to develop? We’d love to speak with you! Feel free to schedule a consult here.


What We’re Reading…

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on

Tait Kellogg, PhD, Director of Research & Strategic Services
“Place Matters: A Closer Look at Education Deserts” by Nick Hillman, PhD, with Third Way
KEY TAKEAWAY: “I appreciate Third Way’s approach to make complex issues around higher education accessible. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on around rural higher education. Dr. Hillman’s outline of the concept of education deserts highlights this issue in a unique way.”

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
KEY TAKEAWAY: “This book of short stories from Mississippi author Aimee Nezhukumatathil is truly a gem. It reminds me to find joy in approaching nature and each other with inquisitiveness and wonder.”

Kelly Rifelj, Research Assistant
“Why Aren’t Progressives Focused on Earn-While-You-Learn Models?” By Ryan Craig on Inside Higher Ed
KEY TAKEAWAY: “As much of my work has been on the Free College/promise program movement, I like to keep current of alternative proposals or complementary ideas. In this piece, the author proposes reforming the Federal Work Study program to be more robust and include private employers to support a more equitable higher education system. This is significant because other methods besides, or in addition to, Free College can work to create more equitable outcomes (e.g., doubling the Pell Grant)—and that could be powerful steps to progress.”


Client Spotlight: Clarkson University STEM LEAF

This month, we’re proud to shine the spotlight on our client, Clarkson University, for whom we serve as evaluator for its National Science Foundation (NSF) “ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions” grant.

Upon receiving the grant in 2019, Clarkson University established STEM Leadership, Equity and Advancement of Faculty (STEM LEAF), a project designed to transform “the campus culture to further foster innovation through inclusion and belonging” with the following core goals:

  1. To significantly reduce implicit or unintentional bias associated with gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and country of origin,
  2. To support inclusive leadership development of current and future University Leadership and professional development of STEM women faculty, and
  3. To promote the sustainability of these systemic efforts through university-wide structural changes. 

This important work is highlighted as the NSF celebrates the 20th anniversary of ADVANCE with a series of panels and seminars throughout the month of March.

Do you have an ADVANCE project you need to evaluate? Or perhaps one you’d like to develop? We’d love to speak with you! Feel free to schedule a consult here.


Planning Retreat: American Youth Policy Forum

An organization’s future is brightest when planned strategically and with collective wisdom. To that end, Higher Ed Insight (HEI) recently facilitated a highly successful year-end virtual planning retreat for the youth-focused organization American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF). The goal: bring together an ensemble of thought leaders and impassioned change makers for an afternoon of collaborative discussion to inform future initiatives and planning action steps for the AYPF as its board leadership looks ahead to the next five years. 

Zoom Planning Retreat

On a Friday afternoon in mid-December, the Board of Directors of AYPF gathered around the “table,” which took the form of a six-by-six grid of faces via Zoom, in true 2020 fashion. Joining the Board of Directors at the digital table were members of the AYPF staff, facilitators from HEI, and more than a dozen invited guests, each of whom brought their unique perspective on policies and practices to create opportunity for America’s underserved and underrepresented young people. 

Participants in the visioning exercise included public policy leaders with expertise ranging from early childhood development to adult career technical education, child welfare to corrections reform, learning to legislation, and socioeconomics to science. Each attendee was invested in the growth, opportunity, and success of young people, making them ideal influencers for an organization whose very essence is grounded in work that builds success for youth, particularly those in the margins.

Mission and Vision at the Core

Taking inspiration from AYPF’s vision and mission, HEI facilitators crafted questions designed to allow a broad and open exploration of the myriad of ways AYPF could advocate and influence opportunities for young people across the nation. Additionally, the facilitators intentionally configured breakout sessions to provide both structure to the work and to deliberately tailor smaller group conversations to ensure that every voice in the digital room had a chance to be heard during the discussion. 

Conversation and Collaboration

The Higher Ed Insight team moderated the synergistic discussion. In the breakout sessions, the participants considered questions relating to the creative engagement of stakeholders, cross-sector collaboration, the surfacing and amplification of youth voices, and the facilitation of equitable opportunities. As each question was explored, ideas were expanded, stretched, and optimized. The unique perspectives of the panelists combined to enhance each suggestion, ultimately making the ideas stronger and more viable.  

The breakout sessions provided AYPF staff with collaborative input resulting in a solid list of promising ideas to inform the future direction of AYPF initiatives and projects. 

Next Step: Strategic Plan

HEI’s facilitation of AYPF’s end-of-year planning retreat has equipped AYPF with stakeholder ideas and renewed energy for their work as they move forward, impacting policies, practices, and opportunities for youth for years to come. These suggestions build upon a clear sense of AYPF’s mission and vision and provide an expansive view of what is possible in the next five years.

Interested in learning more about how we approach virtual planning? Please email us or schedule a consultation.


What We’re Reading – January 2021

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on

Patricia Steele, PhD: Educated by Tara Westover

Key Takeaway: Yes, I’m two years behind everyone reading this incredible memoir. I’m captivated by the reality that educational opportunity can afford transformational change, for individuals and for generations. A reminder for why we do the things we do.

Tashera Bolds, PhD: “Culturally Responsive Evaluation: Theory, Practice, and Future Implications”

This article was published by the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  

Key Takeaway: Cultural considerations of the populations and contexts impacted by our evaluation practice is critical–and substantially so when serving diverse, historically marginalized communities. This article, and the work of the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) more broadly, explores the application of culturally responsive evaluation from both theoretical and practical lenses. Revisiting these resources was a timely reminder of the importance of actively and consistently reflecting on one’s own approach to evaluation and ensuring that it is culturally grounded.

Donte McGuire, MEd: Black Teacher Griot blog project 

Andrea (she/her/hers) is a self-described “teacher, learner, curriculum designer, and lover of Black folks” whose site provides space for Black teachers to share their experiences as educators. I specifically appreciated the post, “Dreaming my way free…” 

Key Takeaway: This particular blog post, “Dreaming my way free… “, is a great example of what I enjoy most about Andrea’s work and the Black Teacher Griot website. They both provide me with visions that exist beyond, but not disconnected from, the current inequitable and oppressive educational systems–visions that are always rooted in love and community.

In my work, a lot can be gained by immersing myself in the data. Yet, this quote from Andrea reminds me that there is also much to gain from intentionally setting the data aside to imagine possibilities I never thought was possible: “Some dreams are not simply about creating new realms, some are connecting us to the past, showing what is already inside our communities and ourselves.” 

Tait Kellogg, PhD: Rural Matters” podcast

I’ve been listening to the “Rural Matters” podcast, a reflection of my interest in rural higher education. Especially great was the recent episode with our partner at Education Design Labs, Leslie Daugherty, when we spoke about challenges and opportunities for community colleges in rural areas.

Key Takeaway: Rural areas are resilient and rural community colleges in particular are often instrumental institutions for their communities.