Turning Data into Actionable Information at Colorado State University, Part 2

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Colorado State University has made it a priority for campus conversations and decision-making at to be more data- and information-informed. And data and information provided by the office of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness (IRP&E) now regularly influence strategic and systemic change at the university. In a previous post, I described our execution strategy and three examples related to financial aid, foundational courses, and identifying at risk students. This blog continues with more examples of data-informed strategic change related to academic preparation, the leading academic indicators of student success, and learning communities as well as some lessons we have learned along the way.

Academic Preparation

Where and how students gain prerequisite course credit is an important factor in understanding their academic preparation and is critical to forging transfer articulation agreements.

We conducted an analysis to better understand if students who transferred in AP/IB credits for foundational STEM courses were as successful in subsequent courses as native students. Findings indicated that students with AP/IB credits performed as well as native students. Therefore, specific course credit (as opposed to elective credit) should be given for those test-based credits being transferred in. The analysis served to support Colorado Department of Higher Education policy that was written to increase the transferability from institution to institution.

Leading Academic Indicators of Student Success

Identifying academic behaviors that increase the likelihood of persistence after the first year is critical to improving student success.

Analysis indicated that, independently, completion of foundational math, foundational composition, and 30 student credit hours in the first year increased the odds of degree completion. Further, if a student achieved all three milestones, the odds of graduation increased by 76% over their peers who achieved none of them. Bringing this evidence to orientation advisors has resulted in these improvements for each entering class:

  • The percent completing 30 credits rose from 39 to 42 percent
  • The percent successfully completing foundational math rose from 69 to 72 percent.
  • The percent completing foundational composition rose from 90 to 91 percent.

Simultaneously, we have seen freshman retention increase from 85 to 87 percent which encourages us to expect the six-year graduation rate to increase similarly when the time comes.

Learning Communities

Learning communities can be an expensive endeavor for an institution.  However, there is evidence nationally that suggests they improve student persistence.

About one-third of fall 2014 first-time full-time students at CSU participate in a learning community (LC). To understand if this participation rate could/should be expanded, we conducted multiple analyses. First, what is the efficacy of the LCs? Second, are the benefits the same among the LCs or do they differ? Third, what is the financial impact of expansion?

Analysis indicated that not all CSU learning communities benefit students to the same degree. The most successful LC is a first-year comprehensive experience for students. It also serves primarily students that are low-income and/or first-generation and/or minority. With the LC experience, these groups outperform predicted graduation rates. These data suggest the LC could expand and that it could have significant benefit for important subgroups of students. Further return on investment (ROI) analysis indicated that because the program increases persistence to graduation, it actually creates revenue even though it costs about $250,000 to maintain. The university needed all of this evidence to make an informed final decision to expand the comprehensive LC.

Lessons Learned

There are always lessons to be learned...in my opinion, learning vicariously is a good thing!

  • Never underestimate the importance of taking the time to genuinely build relationships across campus. Understanding what is important to others allows you to be as helpful as possible. In turn, they can reciprocate that level of support.
  • Hire talented staff and ensure each of them is credited (internally and externally) with the work he/she does. Create a team that is varied in skills and interest to ensure the office has capacity to respond to a vast array of support requests.
  • Encourage staff to keep up on current literature and trends related to postsecondary education…it is the only way to be proactive in supporting campus—faculty, leadership, and students alike.
  • Constant communication with staff about institutional context and issues helps them keep a broad perspective and understand how their work fits into a larger picture.
  • Make the time to report back to staff how their projects are influencing conversations and policy...it helps to raise and maintain morale and loyalty.

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.