• Special Feature / Interview
  • 11.17.20

Providing Actionable Data to Policy Makers

  • by Rhyan Conyers, VP for Institutional Effectiveness, Transylvania University

Rhyan had the opportunity to speak with Kate Akers, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Advanced Data Analytics at Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. Her office coordinates with institutional research, finance, and administrative offices at the 14 public, comprehensive institutions throughout the Commonwealth to ensure the collection of actionable, high quality data. Prior to this role, she served as the Executive Director for the Kentucky Center for Statistics, Kentucky’s P20-W longitudinal data system.  

When you talk with policy makers, what are their greatest areas of interest or concern that can be addressed by IR professionals? Also, what do they most enjoy hearing about that we are supplying already? 

The ability to provide actionable data remains a top priority from those that request information. One challenge that we have at the system-level is the lack of real time data, specifically comparative data in financial aid, persistence, and graduation. We often don’t collect the leading indicators that are needed to see, real time, how students are progressing.

Conversely, I often hear from policy makers and others how excited they are for the robustness of the data we have. Linking to other state-level sources, such as workforce and P-12, allows for a more complete picture of the public student-to-workforce pipeline. Additionally, the ability to provide context with IPEDS data and develop meaningful comparisons and aspirations continues to be helpful. 

Many of us now have smaller budgets and/or less time to devote to professional development. If an IR person has the chance to prioritize one or two skills to develop this year, what would you suggest? 

I believe in the power of transparent, accessible data. For many of us data folks that spend a lot of time at a computer, we may not be exercising that muscle as much as we really need to. We can submit all of the federally required reports, and state-mandated Excel files, but if we aren’t connecting with policy makers and practitioners, we are losing a huge audience that really needs the data we collect to make decisions and increase student success. 

Has the pandemic changed anything about higher ed analytics? 

This is a great question. At the beginning of the pandemic, we really focused our efforts at the system office on alleviating the burden on campus staff and gaining information on the labor market. This year, however, studying historical patterns in the relationship between the labor market and higher education really didn’t offer explanations of what we saw happening. 

Now that we are months (yes MONTHS) into the pandemic, access to high quality, timely, accurate data has become an urgent priority in higher education. Ever-evolving enrollment and persistence models, coupled with an increased need to be more efficient, leave our power users—including policy makers—wanting more data. In IR, as a whole, we have spent years modernizing our analytical methods, creating automatic operational reports, and increasing access to self-help data tools like data visualizations. This effort to make our offices more efficient leaves us in a great place to dive deeper into more robust quantitative methods and affords us the opportunity to expand data collections for qualitative information and help our institutions understand the “why.” 

Why are improvements to state-level education to workforce pipeline data collection important? What still needs to be done? 

Higher education data collections are only enhanced by connections to statewide secondary and workforce data systems. This information gives a clearer picture as to the pipeline for students and their families as they move through the education and workforce pipeline. It gives insight for those reentering postsecondary, after joining the workforce, as well as more transient students. 

There is still much to be done in terms of linking to these sources. Clearer guidance on inter-state linking and what questions the data can address are really needed to expand this work statewide.