Data is all around us; sometimes we feel we are drowning in it, and yet we sometimes have trouble harnessing it for data-informed decision making. Achieving the Dream is passionate about helping colleges use data more effectively to plan and assess their efforts to advance student success and equity. It is, in fact, one of our seven essential capacities and is embedded across our work regardless of focus.
ATD’s partners in data: The PDP
Key to Achieving the Dream’s work with data is its relationship with the Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP). The PDP is a robust analytics tool developed by the National Student Clearinghouse and an eco-system of leading reform leaders, like ATD, that work in partnership with it. It is a tool that uses data, data visualization, metrics, and benchmarking, including benchmarks on early momentum and outcomes, to help make it easier for colleges to identify institutional performance gaps and to make progress in closing those gaps.
Of particular note is that the PDP makes the use of intersectional data across the student journey, reaching beyond the typical data points of age, race, and gender to include such metrics as first-generation, enrollment, attendance, and degree-seeking status and viewing resulting data sets in combination with one another. The intersectional approach makes it possible to explore the experiences of subpopulations in more depth, allowing for richer analyses.
ATD, along with other leaders in evidence-based student outcomes reform, continues to support the ongoing development and refinement of the PDP, and we also support colleges in their effective use of the tool. Since 2021, ATD has offered a PDP Onboarding Course dedicated to helping institutions develop and submit their data files to the Clearinghouse to populate the PDP dashboards. The course is typically offered twice a year and, in 2022-2023, served over 176 individuals and 82 institutions.
Filling a need among network colleges
Over time, we discovered that institutions wanted instruction in using the PDP on a level deeper than what the Onboarding Course provides. In response, this summer we launched a new course called the PDP Data Discovery and Decision Support Course. The course is designed to explore how members of higher education administration and staff can contribute to data exploration — even if they are not “data wonks.” We cover how to build a data-informed, equity-minded culture that supports the use of metrics to make key decisions, such as where to focus efforts for improvement, which initiatives to take to scale based on evidence that they are successful in driving change and removing barriers (and which students those initiatives help the least/most), and the extent to which an institution is making progress toward its goals in the context of similar institutional results.
While learning how to operate the PDP dashboards is a key element of the course, dashboard use is framed around why these metrics matter in advancing students success and equity and how to scale the use of these metrics at our institutions. For many colleges, the PDP helps them answer questions that were previously unanswerable: Which students have the most success in meeting credit accumulation rate thresholds and which student populations are experiencing less success? Where are there institutional performance gaps between subpopulations, such as first-generation Hispanic males?
“While learning how to operate the PDP dashboards is a key element of the course, dashboard use is framed around why these metrics matter in advancing students success and equity and how to scale the use of these metrics at our institutions.”
In our inaugural offering of the PDP Data Discovery and Decision Support Course, we enrolled 190 students across 80 institutions and seven partners. We connected with team members from one of the colleges that participated — Elgin Community College — to get their reactions to the course.
The latest stop on Elgin Community College’s PDP journey
Elgin Community College (ECC) is a comprehensive, fully accredited public institution recognized by Achieving the Dream as a Leader College of Distinction and by the Aspen Institute as one of the top 25 community colleges in the United States. It boasts 11,000 students and more than 66,000 alumni representing diverse backgrounds, ages, career interests, and goals who share a strong sense of community and a commitment to success. ECC is also designated a Hispanic-Serving institution by the U.S. Department of Education.
Tanya Ternes, director of data quality at ECC, explains how the ECC team initially connected with the PDP. “ECC began its work with the PDP when we joined the Partnership for College Completion’s Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA) initiative,” she said. “While we completed our Equity Plan using internal data, we are starting to use the PDP dashboards in tracking our progress in attaining the different institutional benchmarks we had set in our Equity Plan.”
When the ECC staff became aware of ATD’s new PDP course, they recognized that it held potential benefit for their institution’s recently created Equity and Student Success Action Council (ESSAC). Launched in conjunction with the college’s ILEA Plan, the ESSAC is a reconfiguration of ECC’s student success initiative groups and is tasked with increasing student success to meet institution-identified goals as well as reducing (and ultimately eliminating) institutional equity-based performance gaps across leading indicators of student success. Because PDP dashboards are utilized in ECC’s institutional research work to assist the strategy teams that comprise the ESSAC, Ternes and team did not hesitate in responding when emails announcing the PDP Data Discovery and Decision Support Course landed in their inboxes.
“We saw this as a wonderful opportunity to increase the awareness of the PDP dashboards as well as increase the knowledge of what metrics were included in these dashboards and what filtering the dashboards included,” Ternes shared. “We determined taking the course would not only be beneficial to our strategy teams but would assist us in one of the recommendations from our ATD coaches, which is to share the PDP dashboards more widely and increase the visibility of the data.”
“We determined taking the course would not only be beneficial to our strategy teams but would assist us in one of the recommendations from our ATD coaches, which is to share the PDP dashboards more widely and increase the visibility of the data.” -Tanya Ternes
Sean Jensen, assistant dean of the college in high school programs at Elgin, complimented the course’s delivery model, noting that it allows for participation from people of varying data skill levels. “The layout of the modules allowed me to proceed at my own pace, which I found beneficial, especially the ability to connect with the mentors and the smaller break-out sessions,” he stated. Natalie Leisering, director of academic advising, agreed. “This training meets you where you are with data comfort,” she remarked.
For others, the course highlight was the insight it provided into metrics. Leisering cited early momentum metrics as her biggest takeaway. “I knew credit accumulation mattered, but being able to toggle the dashboard to see differences and similarities in cohorts was helpful,” she noted. Phil Garber, vice president of planning, institutional effectiveness, and information technology, said that the course opened his eyes to additional elements that the college could focus on, and he specifically echoed Leisering’s sentiment that the course led to deeper insights on credit accumulation. “I like how the PDP dashboards show this metric in various ways: overall, by cohort, by year, and as a percentage of students left to achieve an overall goal of having all students accumulate in a timely fashion,” he stated.
Collectively, the ECC team valued the course as a means of propelling forward the ESSAC’s data work and as a reminder that, when it comes to data — and specifically, the PDP — there is always more to learn.
“Even though we are proud of our status as a Leader College of Distinction and recognized by the Aspen Institute, we know that we are still on our journey to take advantage of data as a source for making decisions about what initiatives are most needed, which initiatives to take to scale, and measuring progress,” said Ternes. “The PDP is an essential tool that we’ll utilize to help us on this journey.”