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Finding New Ways to Make Data-informed Decisions in Higher Education Can Promote Better Accountability and Close Equity and Accessibility Gaps

June 11, 2018


​Savvy data users at higher education institutions are helping college students navigate barriers to academic success and—even more importantly—taking steps to remove those barriers, finds a new report released by ACE. 

The report, Bringing Accountability to Life: How Savvy Data Users Find the “Actionable N” to Improve Equity and Sustainability in Higher Education, is co-authored by Alicia C. Dowd, Keith Witham, Debbie Hanson, Cheryl D. Ching, Román Liera, and Marlon Fernandez Castro, who were all affiliated with the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California at the outset of the study. Alicia Dowd is now a faculty member at Pennsylvania State University, where she directs the Center for the Study of Higher Education.

This research report, based on a case study of university faculty, administrators, and staff who were involved in a data use initiative, illustrates how, when, and where data are being used on university campuses to improve college performance. Looking at different sample sizes, also known as the “N” for numbers, shrewd data users can break these numbers down into units of analysis that are actionable and have meaning. Because college and university leaders today are searching for effective strategies to address racial disparities in educational opportunity and attainment, the authors focused on using data to promote racial equity in higher education.

The lessons of this study show that leaders who use accountability data are most successful when they: 

  • Humanize data by breaking the data down to show how it can be best used in one-on-one interactions.
  • Have access to disaggregated cohort data. 
  • Observe patterns in data that reveal specific cohorts of students who are not being well served by current practices and policies. 
  • Hold up a mirror to their own practices to assess what’s working and what’s not. 
  • Design new strategies for data use, shared governance, student advising, and program administration. 

The authors also offer the following recommendations to campus leaders and practitioners who wish to promote the use of accountability data: 

  • ​Allow time, space, and resources for faculty, staff, and administrators to interactively define and access data for small cohorts of interest so that they can find the “actionable N.” 
  • Articulate the value of using data disaggregated by race and ethnicity based on equity as a standard of practice. 
  • Provide professional development and incentives to faculty to act as data coaches on faculty committees, including strategic planning, accreditation self-studies, department curriculum committees, and program review committees.

This report is the latest in the ACE Center for Policy Research and Strategy’s Viewpoints: Voices from the Field​​​, a series of independent papers authored by leading social science researchers designed to explore new and emergent concepts that help readers reframe or retool their thinking about higher education policy and practice. 

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