It’s 2022, and people are literally buried in data. Data is everywhere. We are required to enter it, gather it, store it, and protect it—all well-intentioned, potentially high-value endeavors. But too often, our engagement with data ends up a humongous waste of time.
Many education organizations are under pressure to use data, and in the higher education and workforce development fields where I’m mostly involved with data, we have done so much work to improve the quality of the data and the systems where we access it. At the levels of national policy (think: the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the Gates Foundation dashboard, the Lumina Foundation’s annual report, DQC, NCES) and individual colleges and universities (think: institutional researchers and their teams), good data is everywhere.
The lost opportunity
But for those who are doing the work day-to-day to serve students—and to help them succeed in their postsecondary goals and aspirations, as well as in their careers—simply having good data is ineffectual. It doesn’t help people do the job of accomplishing what we are all after: student success. We all want to see students achieve their degrees and move on to have full and meaningful careers with life-sustaining wages for their families, and be active contributors to their communities and our society at large. But too much data is gathered with zero time spent planning how to use it, learn from it, and make decisions based on it. This can sound so simple, but this disconnect is a fundamental problem that we see at the core of many education programs, organizations, and institutions.
Smarter approaches to data
The question that higher education leaders need to begin with is not “what data should we collect?” but instead “what do we need to learn about our students and their success?”. This question is the starting point for any conversation about data. We fundamentally want to know if our students are succeeding, how they are succeeding, what is making a difference in their success, and how this varies for students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. Our data collection must flow from there. Once we identify this data—no matter how little or how much data we gather—it must be coupled with a plan of how we will use this data.
In HEI’s experience, many higher ed leaders, programs leaders, and organization leaders have a huge amount of data but feel tremendously overwhelmed with the data. They struggle to answer basic questions about what is making an impact. And they struggle to know how to engage key stakeholders in meaningful conversations about the data they have collected. There may be reports and dashboards that they produce, and maybe even a fixed reporting cycle, but too often data are siloed away from engagement with faculty and staff. Too often, data do not impact discussions around instruction, pedagogy, support services, staffing, and partnerships.
The Insight Edge
At HEI, we built our Insight Edge strategic learning process to help clients use their data in more meaningful, impactful ways. We encourage every leader and every organization to ask themselves: What is your end goal? How can you build a cycle of improvement and real learning? How can you get help to turn data into an actionable strategy? My team and I are always ready to think through these questions with you. Don’t hesitate to reach out.