Demographic-based initiatives well-intentioned but misguided
Recently, we welcomed a new EAB team member with an impressive background in student success. Across her many stories from the field, the ones that stand out to me are those she shared about her own experience as a young person on the receiving end of well-intentioned but ill-conceived student success initiatives directed at individuals solely on the basis of their gender, race, or ethnicity.
In one instance, she recalled having to attend a pre-college success course restricted to traditionally underrepresented students. The content primarily focused on study skills, demystifying college jargon, and financial aid. Though she admitted some content was useful, she also remembers, “It was always assumed that those who were first-generation students were also low-income, which was not the case with my family. We were given bus vouchers and informed of programs I didn’t need, which created a lot of resentment from peers who were left out of this special programming. It was a mess.”
Unfortunately, this is common across higher education, in both the two-year and the four-year sectors.
As institutional leaders strive to make more data-informed decisions, they have to confront the disparities in success rates between African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and white students.
College leaders are rightly focused on raising completion rates for all students, especially those who fall farthest behind. A recent U.S. Department of Education report shows that 28% of Asian students graduated from a public two-year institution within three years, compared to 22% of white students, 16% of Hispanic students, and 11% of African-American students over the same period.
But before moving ahead with a college readiness course restricted to African-American students, or an orientation meeting only for minority students, leaders should reconsider how they identify “at-risk” students and how they could leverage student success technologies to precisely identify which students on campus are actually in the most need of additional support.
No data, no distinctions
Since the 1990s, when the National Center for Education Statistics published a report detailing the characteristics of at-risk students, it’s been commonplace to disaggregate student outcomes by gender, race, and ethnicity. Advances within institutional research offices over the past two decades have been uneven—some institutions are well-staffed and able to disaggregate even further, but most offices lack the resources to take a deeper dive and answer critical questions.
Without knowing why students enter college in the first place, it’s impossible for institutional leaders to distinguish between students failing on paper (measured against a singular metric of on-time credential attainment) and those who are actually failing (measured against the goals they’ve set for themselves).
To truly measure student outcomes, colleges need to know what students hope to achieve. The VFA team is tackling a worthy challenge nationally, but it starts when institutions ask themselves these questions for their own student populations.
Supporting students who need help, empowering those who don't
Who is hurt by shallow data analysis and demographically targeted support programs?
On the one hand, there are those often overlooked by special programming because they are part of traditionally high-achieving groups, such as Asian, white, male, and financially stable students.
However, these broad labels hide real barriers students may face, such as aging out of foster care, struggling with homelessness, or lacking the basic knowledge of the higher education system. Without proper data collection to assess students’ need at entry, colleges often overlook a large portion of their students who would benefit from support services.
On the other hand, students from traditionally underrepresented or low-performing demographic groups also suffer when immediately labeled at-risk upon entering college. Students like my new colleague feel like victims of stereotyping and—in the worst situations—fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-doubt, academic failure, and early attrition.
We need to empower these students, remind them of their ability to succeed, and allow them to achieve their goals without unnecessary intervention from the college.
Turn onboarding data into actionable insights
Fortunately, colleges can collect most of this information during the onboarding process. For example, the onboarding survey in SSC-Navigate captures students’ skills, interests, and goals for a comprehensive view of the entering class. The platform then pairs this information with potential risk factors about employment hours, family responsibilities, and other obligations that may present barriers to success.
Armed with this information, the college can intervene with early-risk students before it’s too late, while ensuring all other students are empowered to access relevant resources.
“When we really embraced and tried to understand the institutional obstacles and what kind of interventions we could put against the problems, we really got some traction. We looked at all the information and data to get the reality of what all of our students are truly facing.”
-Community College Associate Vice President of Student Retention
Our data science team continues to explore how we might bring the power of risk assessment to the two-year sector, but it’s still early. In the short term, we’re determining the utility of institutional reports—customized analytical reports that outline which courses at a given institution are most predictive of success within an academic program.
Our team is also investigating a two-year risk model that is both accurate and actionable, and that relies on a central question in the two-year sector: What is “success”? On-time graduation? High scores in tough classes? Transferring to a university?
It’s a seemingly straightforward question, but one each college must define to ensure that they’re supporting students where they truly need it.
When colleges can precisely and accurately identify at-risk students and act on this information early, everyone benefits. The college can focus support on students who need it most, and students are matched with the right amount of support for all of their needs—no more and no less.
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