Know Your Numbers – Empowering Student Success

2016 Know Your Numbers blog headerBy: Michelle Cooper, President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy

When we were little kids, knowing our numbers was a big deal.  And as a result, when we mastered certain numeric sequences there would be moments of pride.  Remember how big of a deal it was to learn 1 through 10, then 20, 25, 50, 100, and so on!

The importance of numbers sticks with us well past those early years.  In fact, as we grow older, we learn how not knowing or understanding our numbers can cause problems.  For example, not understanding how to convert hourly wages to salary could easily cause one to be shortchanged financially.  Or not knowing your key health care numbers – blood pressure, temperature, weight –  deprive you and your doctor of critical information needed to manage your health and your risks.

And so it could be with higher education. If key decision makers – at all levels – knew their numbers, they could better track student progress and develop interventions that would lead to more successful and equitable student outcomes.

But in too many cases, “data” is treated like a bad word.  When I talk to people about data, they comment that it’s boring, too technical, and too cumbersome.  Some even think it’s scary.  But data is really about knowing our numbers.  And when policymakers and college leaders know and are empowered to use those numbers for meaningful change, they see better outcomes.

At the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP),  we are advocates for better data. Not more data. Better data. Better data means that policymakers will have greater understanding of the return on their investment in higher education; students and families will have more confidence in their choice of where and what to study; and institutional leaders will be better able to pinpoint pitfalls and target interventions in support of student success. Better data are particularly important to understand and close gaps in college access and success for low-income students and students of color.

Our current data systems were designed at a different time and for different purposes, so it is not surprising that they do not reflect the trends and behaviors of today’s students or answer some of the most basic questions about college access, college outcomes and college costs.  In fact, many students are not even counted in some of our data systems, because of their enrollment status, attendance patterns or financial aid status.  But the answers to these questions are critical, especially now as the value of college is increasingly questioned.

That is why IHEP, along with others across the higher education community, are working to improve our postsecondary data infrastructure. One of those partners is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  In February, the Foundation released a report that draws on nearly a decade of work in the field to present a framework of key metrics that should be available for all students and all institutions.  Many of these metrics already are in use through various institutional and state initiatives, which is how we know there’s a great deal of agreement about their use.

Today, IHEP is releasing a critical follow-up to that report, Toward Convergence: A Technical Guide for the Postsecondary Metrics Framework.  This report provides important technical details related to the metrics, outlining exactly which numbers we should be counting and why.  And the “why” of it all is incredibly important.  Simply put, this framework will provide us with better data and a stronger context to guide decision making to benefit today’s college students.

But we can do better.  Together with our partners, we are leading a movement for better quality data. We are eager to make data less cumbersome and less frightening.  And a critical step in that effort is empowering policy and institutional leaders to know – and act upon – their numbers to drive real change for students.

This post originally appeared in the Impatient Optimists section of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website.