Turning Data into Actionable Information at Colorado State University, Part 1

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While Institutional Research is unquestionably needed to inform external accountability demands, a deeper need lies in the potential to use IR to inform and leverage strategic change and organizational learning necessary to propel change…For change to take hold and grow to scale, it has to be strategic and organizational.

-J. Gagliardi and J. Wellman (2015, National Association of System Heads) 

Colorado State University has, since 2008, restructured Institutional Research to expand its utility beyond mandated accountability reporting.  This strategic restructuring was undertaken to ensure that campus conversations and decision-making would be more data- and information-informed. The office, now named Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness (IRP&E) to more accurately depict its role on campus, is heavily involved in a myriad of initiatives and serves in an advising capacity in both academic and student affairs. This blog is intended to share our journey and highlight some of the success of recent years.

Execution Strategy

The journey to establishing an expanded mission and vision for institutional research at Colorado State University was accomplished through an intentional, yet asynchronous, execution strategy that employed some basic tenets of organizational change.

  • Create efficiencies – this will create more time for focusing on strategic institutional change
    • Automate as much of the reporting, both internal and external, as possible.
    • Explore new tools…as technology improves, adopt it.
  • Align the office with like-minded individuals who can influence change
    • Identify who in student and academic affairs is able to influence change.
    • Of that group, identify who understands the value in using data to inform decision-making.
    • Take a sincere interest in understanding their needs, issues, and concerns.
  • Create and build on small wins
    • Begin offering useful information to the campus community…even if it is unrequested. This will demonstrate the office is proactive and concerned about campus issues.
    • Embrace the role as a service office.
    • ALWAYS under-promise and over-deliver on the data/information you provide. Timeliness and accuracy are critical to building trust.

Strategic and Systemic Institutional Change

There are many examples of how data and information now influence strategic and systemic change at Colorado State University.  In this post, I share examples about student success related to financial aid, foundational courses, and identifying at risk students. In a future post, I present examples of campus decisions made about student academic preparation, the leading academic indicators of student success, and learning communities.

Financial Aid

As part of its land grant mission, Colorado State University wants to ensure that financial challenges will not prevent any undergraduate Colorado student who is admitted to the university from attending. Toward this end, students who are eligible for federal Pell Grant funding are generally eligible to receive institutional grant funds to cover at least 100% of student share of base tuition and standard fees. We have seen increased persistence among this group of students.  Students who do not qualify for Pell Grant funding but are still in significant need are generally eligible for grant funds (federal, state, and institutional) to cover at least ½ the cost of student share of base tuition.

Analysis by IRP&E indicated that the group of students who had half of their tuition and fees funded through grants had significantly lower persistence rates than their peers who qualified for the full funding of tuition and fees. Results from this analysis informed the decision by the university to expand its institutional aid program. The expansion impacts hundreds of students each year.

Foundational Courses

As is typical in postsecondary education, one important issue related to foundational undergraduate courses is appropriate placement. Another is improving success rates without grade inflation or reducing rigor.

An analysis of the rates of students earning a D, F, or W in foundational composition and chemistry courses by students’ preparation level informed the decision to implement discipline-specific placement examinations for those courses. Students who do not pass the placement examination are not allowed to register for the foundational course and are, instead, registered for a lower level course. The department overseeing composition had already created the lower level course, which students used to opt into by choice; now students are placed in the lower level course if the assessment indicates the need or they choose to self-place in the course. The chemistry department created a new lower level course; they offer it at the same time as the foundational course so that students who don’t complete the placement examination until after they have already registered do not have to change their course schedule in order to enroll in and complete the lower level course.

We conducted a separate analysis to look at graduation rates based on how students performed in foundational STEM courses. In the first year, students who were not successful (earning a D, F, or W) in a CHEM111, LIFE102, PH141, or foundational math courses had a predicted graduation rate of 52% compared to a predicted graduation rate of 81% for students who were successful (demographics held constant). After reviewing these findings, STEM departments led efforts to improve pedagogy, increase support and training for graduate teaching assistants, and increase tutoring attendance. All of these efforts ultimately decreased, legitimately, the DFW rate. Additionally, enrollment growth funding to colleges now excludes student credit hours in which the resulting grade is a D, F, or W. This financial policy brings this important topic into acute focus for college leadership.

Identifying “At Risk” Students

While the overt measure of student success is often the six-year graduation rate, at CSU we know that the rate is a by-product of deep and meaningful student learning. To best facilitate that learning, it is critical that we identify students who are “at risk” of not succeeding in their course work so that they we can come to them with appropriate support services. This requires an authentic assessment of their strengths and risk factors.

The identification of at-risk students is an ongoing analysis in IRP&E.  These analyses are paired with proprietary risk scores from a national vendor and then shared with advisors. Advisors now have the ability to intervene with students who present a history of academic performance similar to that of previously unsuccessful students.  Since this work has been shared with advisors, the graduation rate has increased by six percent; more than in the ten years prior.

Read part 2 for more examples of student success efforts shaped by the review of data.

Dr. Laura Jensen, Associate Provost of Planning and Effectiveness, has over twenty years of professional research experience and worked at the University of Colorado and Front Range Community College before coming to Colorado State University. She is committed to helping the institution better understand issues surrounding student success, program evaluation, assessment, enrollment, faculty/staff, research, and operations. She serves on a variety of internal and external committees related to educational research, reporting, and data management.