Last week Achieving the Dream (ATD) hosted the eighth annual Data & Analytics Summit, an event for educators, leaders, and practitioners in higher ed who are working to increase equity and support student success through the strategic use of data and analytics. The Summit was fully virtual for the second year in a row, allowing over 500 participants from across the country to engage in an immersive peer learning experience designed to equip them with tools to scale their whole-college reform efforts and impact their broader communities.
Higher ed’s responsibility to design better outcomes
Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of ATD, welcomed attendees with a message about the importance of centering equity in data practices. Sharing a vision for “next-generation metrics,” she emphasized the role that community colleges can and must play to advance equitable economic and social mobility.
“When we hit our stride with whole-college transformation, we become transformative actors in our communities.” – Dr. Karen A. Stout
In the opening plenary session, Dr. Christine Ortiz Guzman, founder of Equity Meets Design, explored how institutions and organizations can design their programs to advance equity. Drawing from her experience as a creator and youth leader of the Truth tobacco prevention campaign, Dr. Guzman identified multiple common design problems that leaders can encounter, and how to solve them. These issues range from a lack of contextual or historical knowledge to a lack of focus. “When we try to solve all the problems at once,” Dr. Guzman said, “we end up not being able to solve any of them.”
Inequity, Dr. Guzman stressed, is a product of design, and it can be dismantled through design. “We are all designers in this formulation of the work at hand,” she concluded.
Bringing in the student perspective
In a session entitled “Amplifying the Student Voice,” Suzanne Walsh, president of Bennett College, talked about the importance of centering the student perspective in institutional reform. “Students can be one of our greatest assets on campus to help us co-create,” she said.
She moderated a panel discussion with three of ATD’s Every Learner Everywhere Student Fellows: Christa Elrod, Barbara Gooch, and Vickiana Supriana, who shared their experiences, concerns, and ideas for reform. Cost of living, lack of transportation options, mental health support, and continuing anxiety surrounding the pandemic were all mentioned as priority issues for students. Barbara Gooch, who lives in a rural area, said transportation was a particular challenge for her community in accessing higher education.
While the student voice is critical to include, panelists mentioned that it can be difficult to engage authentically through the systems their colleges have in place. Christa Elrod brought up the critical issue of representation: “If I’m a student with a certain identity, I want [to talk to] someone who shares my identity.”
Panelists also discussed processes and norms that have emerged during the pandemic — for better or worse. Vickiana Supriana said that increased access to mental health professionals has been a positive development, and she hopes this type of support continues after colleges resume normal operations.
Partnerships are essential
In Wednesday’s first general session, “Leveraging our Localness: Measures of Community Vibrancy,” ATD data coach Shara Davis emphasized the importance of community partnerships and collaboration to increase equitable opportunities for learners throughout their education and career journeys. “It will take collective effort to bring community vibrancy to fruition,” she said.
Dr. Rodney Rodriguez, senior director of RGV FOCUS, and Dr. David Plummer, interim executive vice president for educational programming and student achievement at South Texas College, shared how their college/community partnerships in South Texas have injected opportunities for economic growth into the area.
Dr. Plummer outlined a problem of access at South Texas College, specifically how to create pathways for learners who were jumping in and out of college based on job availability in the oil industry. “We had a problem finding these populations,” Dr. Plummer said. “How do you communicate to them? How do you let them know [our program] is a value?” South Texas College partnered with local organizations, including housing authorities, to meet potential learners where they were and expose more community members to credentialling opportunities available to them at the college.
“Partnership is key,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “No one can do this work alone.”
High-impact practices in the classroom
Practitioners and policy experts discussed high-impact practices in the classroom during the general session “Fostering a Culture of Excellence in Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning.” Dr. Lenore P. Rodicio, a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and the chair of the Board of Directors of AAC&U, said that “driving change requires a commitment to changing institutional mindset.” This involves moving from a deficit outlook — seeing students as the problem — to an asset-based outlook, where students’ lived experiences are considered a benefit and are reflected back to them through pedagogy.
Dr. Jessa Valentine, director of research, evaluation, and analytics at DVP-PRAXIS, discussed the use of high-impact practices (HIPs) in teaching and learning, stressing their notable benefits for students of color and first-generation students. Citing a Lumina study, she showed participants how HIPs engaged students more effectively and led to more positive outcomes, including narrowing equity gaps, in Tennessee community colleges.
Clomeisha Tumlin, assistant professor at Chattanooga State Community College, shared how the Center for Academic Research and Excellence (CARE) at her college is actively supporting the adoption and implantation of HIPs throughout the institution. CARE provides professional learning opportunities for faculty, including summer institutes, book clubs, and library guides that equip educators with more tools for culturally responsive, data-informed teaching practices.
“It’s not business as usual anymore”
On the final day of the Data & Analytics Summit, speakers engaged in discussions about how institutions can reimagine themselves — their policies, their programs, their cultures — to build more equitable futures for their students and communities.
In “Anchoring a Bold New Access Agenda,” ATD data coaches Daryl Davis and Dr. Yash Morimoto outlined recent issues and trends that are affecting community college access. “It’s not really business as usual anymore,” said Dr. Morimoto, referring to a transition away from traditional marketing and recruitment toward more holistic practices that consider students’ needs and barriers.
Dr. Nathan Grawe, author of The Agile College, Ada M. Harrison distinguished teaching professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Carleton College, challenged attendees by asking, “How do we need to change so that we are prepared for these students, rather than simply assuming they will adapt to us?”
In the closing plenary session, Vu Le, former executive director of Rainier Valley Corps and creator of the NonprofitAF.com blog, gave an engaging, challenging, and often hilarious talk on “What We Must Learn and Unlearn to Build an Equity-Minded Culture.” He framed equity not as a state of being but a process of doing — citing Jay Smooth’s “dental hygiene” paradigm of talking about race, Le stressed that higher education leaders and practitioners must constantly be willing to look in the mirror and floss if they’ve “got a little racism stuck in their teeth.”
Speaking broadly about the nonprofit industry, Le identified many areas where institutions of higher education and education-focused organizations can transform their cultures to place equity at the center of their work. As ATD leadership coach Dr. Rhonda Coats said at the start of the session, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Through continuous self-reflection and a commitment to action-oriented mindsets, higher education and nonprofit leaders can transform their cultures to be centered on equity, inclusion, and compassion. These cultures build a foundation for better student outcomes and thriving communities. The shift is about commitment as much as imagination, Le said. “We have the solution. We just have to support it.”