The Intersection

Postsecondary Pathways | Higher Education and Data Equity

March 1, 2021

Our February Postsecondary Pathways webinar included insights on higher education data and equity from Dr. Christopher Nellum, Dr. Carlos Santiago, and Mamie Voight. As state leaders think about how to reimagine systems of higher education in ways that produce more equitable outcomes for students, especially in consideration of disruptions caused by the pandemic, they need robust higher education data systems to determine specific areas of need and measure interim progress toward equity goals. In this conversation, leading state policymakers and advocates discussed the importance of taking a data-driven approach to equity work as well as strategies that can be used to make higher education data more accessible to decision makers.

Ensuring Equity Through Proper Data Collection

“When we look at the data in Massachusetts, the largest differentials are by race and ethnicity.”

-Dr. Carlos Santiago, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education

Dr. Carlos Santiago shared how Massachusetts has prioritized data equity for the state’s higher education system. The Department of Higher Education in Massachusetts consists of a variety of institutions, including community colleges as well as private institutions. Equity is embraced in the state as a system-wide imperative, with an emphasis on racial equity. All data and policies are now examined through a racial quality lens.

Mamie Voight, senior vice president of policy and research for the Institution of Higher Education Policy (IHEP), described the role of higher education in building pathways for social mobility. IHEP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization committed to promoting college access, success, and affordability – especially for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.  The organization works diligently to identify equity gaps with data.

Dr. Christopher Nellum, serves as deputy director of research and policy for the Education Trust-West. The California-based office of The Education Trust has worked to address equity gaps with research and advocacy groups for the past 20 years. The organization unapologetically works for Black and brown students, as well as low-income students.

Using Data Systems to Help Students

“Stories are really important because they tell us how students are experiencing education. They help us look inward and improve our ability to meet their needs.” 

-Dr. Christopher Nellum, Deputy Director of Research and Policy, for the Education Trust-West

Dr. Christopher Nellum relayed how The Education Trust finds great value in using data to illuminate disparities in a race-conscious way. He pointed out the numbers of students completing FAFSA or California Dream Act. The organization created a data leverage tool that is now being used by the state of California.  The Education Trust also believes in transparency – making data widely available to everyone. The organization creates “equity walks” to engage students, families, educators, and community- based organizations in applying information from its data systems.

Dr. Carlos Santiago discussed how Massachusetts is often called “The Education State,” but in reality, Massachusetts hasn’t always addressed the needs of all students in an equitable manner. Over the years, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education has met with other organizations to prioritize equity. They are now developing a longitudinal system from early childhood to higher education to track students and data from early childhood to graduation. In public education, graduation rates vary based on demographics. To increase the standard of living and education of future employees, data must be considered to address opportunity gaps that vary across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Previously, colleges have asked the question of whether students were ready to be successful. Now, the tables have turned, with the Department of Higher Education asking institutions if they are ready for students – do they have the resources students need to succeed? New policy audits and task forces have helped to reimagine higher education and provide resources to students.

Mamie Voight shared how data evidence is necessary and vital to support student success and promote equity. For example, data can identify achievement gaps and find ways to close those gaps. At the national level, Voight described the United States as data rich but informationally poor.

Creating Student-Level Data Networks

“Systems are not counting the outcomes of all students. If we are to have a fully robust picture of what our systems look like to inform policymaking, changes in practice, and student decisions – particularly for our Black, Latinx, Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds – we have to count all students and all backgrounds.” 

–Mamie Voight, Senior Vice President of Policy and Research for IHEP

IHEP advocates for a student-level data network to provide information to students about in-demand career fields and ways to pay for college. IHEP is participating in a postsecondary data collaborative initiative that brings together other organizations to promote change and success as well as equity and the local, state and federal policy level.  Voight urged that data needs to be transformed into information with evidence-based research to inform decisions and policy.  Better transparency and information at the institution level uses disaggregated data to provide information to policymakers and practitioners at the institution level using evidenced based decisions to enhance equity.

Mamie Voight suggested that while data can be used to report credentials earned, it can do much more. Data should be disaggregated to tell the story of students who join the military or go on to a certificate program after high school. To create a robust dataset, all students, and their outcomes should be accounted for.

At the federal level, there is currently a draft of legislation that would help fill in data gaps concerning mobility and workforce outcomes. If the legislation passes, students would have access to important information that they could use to make informed choices when it comes to pursuing higher education. States need to get the level of data they need and leverage the information to inform policy and support students.

Dr. Christopher Nellum noted that currently, California doesn’t have a central database to answer basic questions concerning higher education. He shared that ideally, the state should understand how much postsecondary education costs, not simply estimating, across the private and public segments. The state should know how long, on average, it takes a student to earn a bachelor’s degree. It is also important to understand the effectiveness of postsecondary systems based on data. The advocacy work to support students is valuable and therefore data is important as well.  The data will help the state better understand the investment in postsecondary education and the effects the investment has made.

As a silver lining to the webinar, Dr. Nellum noted, “In California we have fires every year and there is probably another pandemic probably in our lifetime, so next time we will be ready. We need to invest in data now so we can be better prepared for the next time.”

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