A New Data Mindset: Creating Equitable Student Outcomes and Vibrant Communities

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Transforming community colleges to transform their communities by accelerating more equitable student outcomes requires institutional leaders to adopt a new data mindset that is fully focused on building better access to college, creating momentum for timely completion, and ensuring equitable mobility for graduates along career paths paying a family-sustaining wage.

Stack of blocks forming a picture of an arrow. On top of the point of the arrow is a block with a silhouette of a head with data points in it. A hand is holding that top block.
Credit: 3rdtimeluckystudio / Shutterstock.com © 2024

Community colleges, like all other higher education institutions and also organizations in virtually every other field, are awash in data. In the past few decades, publicly available data has dramatically increased, and many colleges have strengthened their institutional research capacity. But as suggested by Amelia Parnell, vice president for research and policy at NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the challenge is rarely that we don't have enough data or even that we don't have the right data. Rather, as she explains in her book You Are a Data Person: Strategies for Using Analytics on Campus (2021), we need to ensure that the data we do have is "appropriately paired for the questions that we want to find the best answers to."Footnote1 In other words, we need a new mindset about how we approach data—a mindset that sees data through a student-centered and equity- focused lens and is aimed at transforming not only our colleges but also our communities.

This is particularly important now and in our current context, with low educational attainment rates reflecting persistent equity gaps. Systemic racism continues to underpin many of the problems in the United States. Poverty and economic insecurity impact too many Americans. Wealth and mobility gaps are significant and getting worse. Americans are more politically divided than ever. And our colleges and universities are facing a relevancy crisis. While we have recently seen some gains in enrollment, these are modest in the face of the significant declines since 2011, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The value of higher education, including community colleges, is being questioned.

John Kotter, an organizational change expert, has noted that in times of disruption, it is crucial to better understand one's own landscape to find new opportunities. He adds that there is a growing gap between the rate, amount, and complexity of change outside of our organizations and our capacity as organizations and humans to keep up.Footnote2

The student success movement is evolving within and is informed by this disruptive context. More college leaders are understanding that student completion rates are a progression metric rather than the end goal. Institutions are shifting to ensuring that students are able to leverage their educational work and credentials to realize real and ongoing social and economic mobility so that the work of higher education can lead to thriving communities. At Achieving the Dream, we think of this as transforming colleges to transform communities.

The Evolving Student Success Agenda

During a strategy reset at Achieving the Dream in 2017, we used a chart to show three phases of the student success agenda (see figure 1). Most institutions begin the journey focused on student completion, then move to understanding student return on investment. By ensuring that graduates enter career paths paying family-sustaining wages, colleges enter the third phase: connecting this transformation to the difference it makes for the communities we serve. Many colleges that work with Achieving the Dream are active in all three phases, yet some are just beginning to address the work around completion.

Figure 1. Three Phases of the Student Success Agenda
line graph showing the percent of colleges launching each of the three phases. Leaders are at the beginning, the peak is Mainstream, and the tail of each is the Laggards. Phase 1: Student completion. Phase 2: Student economic gains. Phase 3: Community economic wellbeing. As each line goes down the line for the next phase is rising. An added note as Phase one is falling: Today: Some Network colleges have already launched Phases 2 and 3. ATD can help accelerate that work.
Credit: Achieving the Dream

In our 2021 strategy reset, Achieving the Dream took a new look at these phases, adding what I call a "Phase 0" to the chart and calling for our colleges to embrace a bold access agenda. We also started going deeper in our aspirations to understand community well-being or vibrancy metrics. Both moves are embedded in our strategic vision, through which we work to support our network colleges in their efforts to "catalyze equitable, antiracist, and economically vibrant communities through institutional transformation that advances community colleges as profoundly accessible hubs of learning, credentialing, and economic mobility that eliminate inequities in educational and workforce outcomes."Footnote3

To activate this vision and address the gap described by Kotter requires a new data mindset, one that is focused as much on how and why we use data as it is on gathering and organizing data. This is a data mindset based on a larger field of vision focused on access, momentum and mobility, and community vibrancy with data that is student- and community-centered rather than focused solely on the progress and performance of our institutions. (See figure 2.) Those goals may seem obvious to many higher education leaders, but achieving them requires a shift in our thinking about how we approach data.

Figure 2. Closing Equity Gaps in Higher Education for Greater Economic Mobility
Intentional Outreach | Connecting populations left behind by postsecondary education. 
Affordable Access | Keeping educational costs and student debt down. 
Early Momentum | Improving first year progression and persistence.
Milestone Momentum | Ensuring completion of credentials with labor market value.
Upward Mobility | Promoting economic and social advancement. 
Vibrant Communities | Catalyzing individual, family, and societal gains.
Credit: Achieving the Dream

An Expanded Notion of Equitable Access

A new data mindset requires, first, an expanded notion of equity that both doubles down on the work to address the inequities within our colleges and universities and looks beyond our campuses. We know that many students who are racially minoritized and economically marginalized are less likely to attend college and gain a college credential. This challenge is particularly urgent for community colleges, which serve the largest percentage of racially minoritized students as well as students who experience poverty and financial hardship. We also know that numerous other factors, such as being a parent, a first-generation student, neurodivergent, LGBTQ, or an adult learner removed from traditional educational experiences—or all of these things and more at the same time—intersect with those larger demographic categories and affect how people think about entering postsecondary education, especially as it is currently designed.

A new data mindset requires that we recognize these lived experiences and the equity gaps that extend beyond our campuses and how they affect the lives of our students before those students reach us—if they reach us at all—and after they leave. This requires us to develop a deeper understanding of the diversity and culture of our communities and explore local opportunities in a new way. From an access perspective, we need data not just on who is attending our institutions but also on who has not had equitable access to our institutions. The key, then, is to know what this data tells us about the inequities in our own local context and about how these factors intersect for the students we aren't reaching.

But having that data is simply a starting point. Having a data mindset centered on a broad notion of equity requires us to move beyond what has been called satellite data: "broad-brush quantitative measures like test scores, attendance patterns and graduation rates." We need to bring that data, currently operating at the 10,000-foot level, down to more qualitative and experiential street data that helps us "reveal what's getting in the way of student or adult learning"—or in this case, getting in the way of even pursuing higher education.Footnote4

To move from the higher-level data down to the student, family, and community experiences with our institutions requires us to ask: Who isn't showing up at our doors and why not?

  • Why are certain students not considering college?
  • If students are considering college, why are they not enrolling?
  • What are the barriers?
  • What have we done to break down the barriers?
  • What have we done to reach them beyond traditional outreach?
  • Who can help us reach them and create better access?
  • What in our processes needs to change?

Armed with the answers to these questions, we then must transform our practices to intentionally create equitable and sustained access to our institutions.

This is not a marketing or enrollment-management exercise. Rather, this is a model for using data to inform our efforts to create profoundly accessible institutions that intentionally seek to dismantle inequitable systems and structures and provide expanded opportunities to those in the communities we serve.

A New Data Mindset in Action

Leaders at Broward College dug into the institutional data and found zip codes where the college was serving only 3,000 students when it should have been reaching as many as 53,000. By opening new locations near those communities, creating innovative and accessible programs, and supporting students so they could access these new opportunities, Broward was able to provide thousands of new students with opportunities to achieve a college credential.

Leaders at Portland Community College looked closely at their K-12 oriented programs and identified 17 community and school district partnerships that were either siloed or sitting within divisions that did not align with needs. In response, they created a K-12 & Community Partnerships Division designed to align access programs (e.g., Gateway to College) focused on the most marginalized populations, acceleration programs (e.g., dual credit and other career and technical education and early college programs), and college success programs, including federal grant-funded programs (e.g., TRIO and CAMP) and locally developed programs (e.g., Future Connect and PDX Bridge).

Momentum That Leads to Real Mobility

Making institutions of higher education more equitably accessible is only one part of the challenge of a community-focused equity agenda. We need to also make sure that the "opportunities" we are providing students are not simply perpetuating equity gaps in the long run. We need to use data to inform us of the impact that our institutions have on student mobility. And here again, the data suggests we have work to do.

For example, a Brookings Institution study on program-level data on earnings and student-loan repayment outcomes at more than 1,200 community colleges found that field of study, not student demographic characteristics, "explains most of the variation in net earnings across programs." In other words, racially minoritized students are disproportionately enrolling in programs with lower earnings. This is unequivocally a design problem. The report point outs: "Colleges that enroll proportionally more underrepresented minority students tend to offer fewer programs in fields that lead to the highest post-college earnings."Footnote5

Leaders at some community colleges have looked at data like this and simply stopped offering credentials in certain fields, while others are seeking to create stackable credentials to ensure that students will not be stuck on the lowest-paid rung of the ladder. Either way, if we are thinking about equity through a community lens, we must not only expand access but also ensure that we are providing access to opportunities that disrupt equity gaps beyond our doors.

A New Data Mindset in Action

To close equity gaps and change the mix of students in high-value programs, leaders at Patrick and Henry Community College used program data to start asking questions, inside and outside the college, about who was enrolled in programs and who was not and whether the programs aligned with the needs of the region. They found an opportunity to build a bold equity agenda and shifted the program mix, as well as the demographics of students moving into high-wage occupations and completing credentials, thus driving new prosperity in the region. Business leaders are now leaning on the college for new ideas and innovation.

Leaders at Lorain County Community College looked at labor market data to identify local jobs that were in high demand and paid a living wage, and they created programs to offer the credentials needed to get those positions. Working with churches, food banks, and other community organizations, the college reached out to unemployed workers and other job seekers to help them access these programs. Enrollment in career and technical education increased by over 30 percent, but the focus was on providing opportunity and mobility for disconnected workers and students. "

Data Work: A Team Sport

Obviously, creating a new data mindset involves a significant amount of work. At the institutional level, a new data mindset requires a strategy emphasizing that data work is a team sport and that we are all data people.

This challenge is not unique to higher education. A survey of business executives in February 2022 reported: "The biggest challenge for organizations working on their data strategy might not have to do with technology at all. . . . cultural change is the most critical business imperative. . . .  becoming data-driven is about the ability of people and organizations to adapt to change."Footnote6

But how do we create a culture where more of our colleagues feel comfortable engaging with data and the change this engagement may require? Here again, Parnell provides an important framework. She suggests: "The most ideal climate for successful data work is one that promotes open communication, supportive sharing of progress and results, and ongoing collaboration."Footnote7

Data is too often seen as an accountability tool rather than as a powerful strategy for collaboration, learning, and progress. This focus on accountability makes people defensive about the data. The data begins to take on a life of its own and becomes an end in itself. So often we have conversations about the quality of the data while we speak infrequently about what we are trying to accomplish when looking at the data.

We need to move beyond those conversations to what I like to call the "cause-to-wonder phase"—when data drives curiosity and encourages new ways of thinking and when our faculty and staff feel included and supported in that work. This is not to suggest that everyone becomes a data analyst, but as Parnell points out, nearly every higher education professional engages in some piece of an institution's data work.

Moving Beyond Dashboards and Democratizing Data

Like any other good team, the institutional leadership needs a balanced attack. Too often, without a strategy, leaders and data teams default to defense: stressing compliance, enacting supervision, using analytics to detect fraud, trying to perfect data with a zealous approach to data integrity and documentation, hoarding data, and focusing on lagging indicators based on census dates. Granted, some of this defense is unavoidable, and some is important for risk mitigation. Nonetheless, we also need to build a team environment and an effective data-informed culture to play offense.

Playing offense means moving away from the idea that data work is the responsibility only of the institutional researchers and managers who handle compliance reporting and supervision. We must develop a data culture that seeks to use data to transform our institutions and our communities. We must move beyond dashboards and democratize the data to drive responsive and relevant actions. And we must be comfortable with the fact that because data is iterative and long-term, we might find ourselves moving in the wrong direction. This is okay and will inform our next play, our next move.

Seeking ways to use data strategically to determine how to provide equitable access to students who are disconnected, to better engage and excite students in their learning and college experience, and to help students not just complete college but gain social and economic mobility are forward-looking metrics. They can be powerful motivators and strong levers for engaging all stakeholders and building a data culture that is collaborative, progressive, playful, and impactful.

Building Capacity for Data Storytelling

At the same time that we are thinking about how to transform our use of data internally, it is equally important to consider how a new data mindset can help us better convey our missions, goals, and work in general—our relevancy. Data charts alone will not do this. A new data mindset requires a renewed focus on our capacity to use data for storytelling.

Data can reveal a problem or opportunity. But it needs a storyteller to connect the data with the realities of the problem or opportunity. As Nancy Duarte says in her book DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story: "Transforming numbers into narratives will become part of every leader's job. We rely on data to tell us what has happened and stories to tell us what it means."Footnote8

At Achieving the Dream, we have learned a lot about the power of storytelling from leaders at Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs): they lead with stories and back into the data. As one Native American proverb states: "Tell me the facts, and I'll learn. Tell me the truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever."

Let me give one example. I was talking to a student whose focus was on one number: $457. That number, the student told me, "may not seem like much money to you." She added: "But I need financial help just to re-enroll. $457 is what I owe to the college to get back on my path to a degree. I have parking tickets and some tuition from a few years ago I could not pay. I've saved half of that $457 in the past year. I hope to re-enroll next year. My family is counting on me to complete the degree."

Because of her story, I remember the student, who was a single mom with three children, and I remember the $457 number and everything about where I was at that moment when we talked. Stories like this one have moved some colleges and boards to action around eliminating the burden of debt sparked by their own fiscal policies designed to sort out students rather than sort them in.

A new data mindset requires a renewed focus on data storytelling because this is not only how we make our case but also how we celebrate our students and build up our communities. At the same time, we need to be listeners of stories that help us understand our students better and that also can be a powerful tool in connecting with students and giving them a sense of belonging at our institutions.

We need to hear stories from students who don't think they can attend our institutions. We need to hear stories about their hopes and aspirations as well as the challenges they and their families face. We need to hear stories from community and religious leaders about the strengths of their communities and how we can build on them. Because as Safir and Dugan remind us, these are more than "just stories." We need to learn the street data.Footnote9 This is a different kind of data—it is systematic information about our students' and our potential students' lived experiences. It helps complete the picture and truly makes our data mindset more student and community centered.

The Time Is Now

A 2023 Gallup poll found that Americans' confidence in higher education has fallen to 36%, with nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents having only some (40%) or very little (22%) confidence.Footnote10 And in a 2023 YouthTruth survey of 25,000 high school seniors, only 20 percent said they expect to enroll in community college after high school, down from 25 percent in the previous 2019 poll, with Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, and male students reporting the most diminished expectations for attendance.Footnote11 If community colleges are going to fulfill our mission to provide equitable access to a college credential and a pathway to a good career, we are going to have to overcome these perceptions and expectations and ensure that our institutions are relatable and relevant and a real opportunity for students, particularly those we have failed to reach and serve. Addressing that challenge will require expanding our notion of what we can do with data to better serve current and prospective students and be a closer part of the communities from where those students will come. This will require a new data mindset that is student and community centered and driven by a commitment to equitable outcomes for all students.


  1. Amelia Parnell quoted in Doug Lederman, "'You Are a Data Person,'" Inside Higher Ed, February 6, 2022. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. John Kotter, Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2021). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. Karen A. Stout, "Community Colleges as Hubs of Social and Equitable Mobility and Equitable, Antiracist Communities," Achieving the Dream (website), July 6, 2022. Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan, Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2021). Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Cody Christensen and Lesley J. Turner, "Student Outcomes at Community Colleges: What Factors Explain Variation in Loan Repayment and Earnings?" Brookings (website), September 29, 2021. Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Randy Bean, "Why Becoming a Data-Driven Organization Is So Hard," Harvard Business Review, February 24, 2022. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Amelia Parnell, You Are a Data Person: Strategies for Using Analytics on Campus (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2021). Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Nancy Duarte, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story (Washington, DC: Ideapress Publishing, 2019). Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Safir and Dugan, Street Data. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Megan Brenan, "Americans' Confidence in Higher Education Down Sharply," Gallup (website), July 11, 2023. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. YouthTruth, Class of 2023: Who Plans to Go to College? (Center for Effective Philanthropy, May 2023). Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.

Karen A. Stout is President and CEO of Achieving the Dream, Inc., and President Emerita for Montgomery County Community College.

© 2024 Karen A. Stout