As institutions grapple with closing persistent equity gaps, institutional research holds clues to promising solutions. Read about two institutions that have effectively used data in combination with the voices and input of underrepresented students to improve the student experience and enhance student success.
ASU Local: A Hybrid Model that Enables Enhanced Support
Twenty-year-old John Samonte has clear goals. Currently, his sights are set on becoming a doctor of physical therapy. A year ago, his goal was to attend Arizona State University (ASU), one of his top “dream schools.”
Samonte, who identifies as Filipino, was attending a local community college in Los Angeles, planning to transfer to a four-year school to finish his degree. ASU felt out of reach, quite literally.
“I was dealing with some family emergencies,” Samonte said. “I didn’t want to leave my family high and dry.”
Samonte found the answer to his dilemma while scrolling through Instagram. There in his feed, among funny memes and inspirational quotes, was an ad for ASU Local.
“It was the best of both worlds,” Samonte said. “I could stay at home in L.A. and still go to my dream school.”
Patrick Rossol-Allison, Head of ASU Local at Arizona State University, says ASU Local launched in fall 2019 in its first location, Los Angeles, to support students in situations similar to Samonte’s.
ASU Local is, as Rossol-Allison describes it, a global research university brought directly to students who want to be rooted in communities of their choice for various reasons, from retaining their current employment to family obligations.
“We [in research institutions] are constantly asking students to come to us,” Rossol-Allison explains. “ASU thought, ‘Let’s take the research university to the students.’”
Rossol-Allison rejects the notion that institutions must be exclusive to maintain their competitive edge.
“Many colleges and universities have the mindset that ‘we must be super exclusive and not let a lot of students into our sacred halls,’” he said. “At ASU, we demonstrated that inclusivity with high-quality education is possible. And it’s who we are.”
Rossol-Allison’s roots are in institution research. For years, he served as Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning, Research, and the National Higher Education Benchmarking Institute at Johnson County Community College in Kansas, where he led strategic planning and management for the entire organization. So it’s not surprising ASU Local was an idea grounded in data as well as stories of individual student hardships.
“We looked at national data and regional data,” Rossol-Allison said. “We looked at where there are gaps between the number of college-eligible students in any given location and the spots open at institutions.”
In California, for example, one 2017 article cited nearly 70,000 qualified California students turned away from California institutions from 2013 until 2017. There are many localities across the country in which the demand is far greater than the amount of seats in lecture halls.
ASU Local sought to create a more scalable solution, removing the burden of large-scale capital projects that are hallmarks of many traditional campuses, thereby allowing the institution to provide hands-on support to students within the communities they live and work.
“We work with co-working or spaces that are embedded within students’ communities, allowing us to avoid capital infrastructure cost,” Rossol-Allison said. “That provides us with various economies of scale and allows us to ramp the things we know matter.”
Namely, individual student support.
In addition to participating in traditional online and virtual learning, ASU Local students gather at their local campus twice per week in addition to an optional weekly meeting with their coach. During COVID-19, students have continued to gather in virtual spaces and meet in-person during optional outdoor meet-ups with limited attendance, in accordance with city, county and state guidelines.
ASU Local actively monitors student engagement on its various learning platforms and prioritizes qualitative intel, regularly recording student interviews (with permission, of course) and analyzing the responses as a team. They then pair insights gleaned with observations from student coaches, who are directly responsible for students’ success. This approach allows them to adapt quickly to improve the institution’s processes and programs. Meanwhile, a similar approach is applied at the individual student level.
There is one coach for every 35 students, and that coach is tasked with ensuring students stay on the right track. They look at students’ performance and engagement metrics and connect those data—regularly—with the actual human beings they represent, Rossol-Allison explains. They then create tailored plans for each student, taking their unique challenges into account.
“My coach holds me accountable,” Samonte said. “I used to have to reach out for help, but now the help is right in front of me.”
That level of support has made all the difference for him.
“I was not the best student at community college,” Samonte said, blushing slightly. “I was falling through the cracks.
“I wish that every college would take a page out of ASU Local’s book—building a personal relationship with students. Even directors and administrators reach out to students. I can literally go to anyone here and have a sit-down conversation, and they’re interested in my success.”
Rossol-Allison agrees. While ASU Local’s model won’t work for every institution, there is an important takeaway for those in institutional research.
“I really want to encourage other institutional researchers to step into roles that are not just about analysis, but really leveraging the analysis and doing something with it,” he said. “Walk with a student through the financial aid process. Walk through processes to understand what they’re like. You can’t design solutions without empathy.”
Morgan State: Turning Insights Into Action
Assistant Vice President for Student Success and Retention Tiffany Mfume has been with Morgan State University for 21 years in June, which means she knows how things work at her institution. She’s learned it’s okay to trust your gut assumptions—as long as you verify them with data.
“I’d rather have the data than even my 20 years of experience,” she said. “When in doubt, I call Dr. Cheryl Rollins, our Director of Institutional Research.”
Morgan State is a public historically black research university located in Baltimore, MD, serving about 7,800 students, 6,500 of which are undergraduates. On average, roughly 58% of students are Pell-eligible. Typically, nearly half are considered first-generation, when defined as one or more parents not attending college (approximately 70%, when defined as one or more parents without a four-year degree).
“A lot of our students come in with challenges, low income being the No. 1 challenge,” Mfume said. “With low-income students, it’s not just the challenge of paying for tuition. It’s all of the covariates associated with low income—the high school they attended, their level of preparedness, family assistance available to navigate college processes.”
And yet, despite its students’ challenges, Morgan State has improved retention and graduation rates significantly in less than 10 years, improving its retention rate from the low-mid 60's to above 70% for ten consecutive years and elevating its graduation rate from below 29% in 2011 to 46% in 2020.
After a record-low retention rate in 2011, the institution took a deep dive into its National Student Clearinghouse data, hoping to better understand reasons for the attrition. The data revealed a gap in retention rates for in-state and out-of-state students. Out-of-state tuition costs more, so those examining the data naturally assumed those students were leaving to attend institutions in their home states.
“It seemed like a plausible assumption,” Mfume said. “That’s why I love data.”
The data revealed that out-of-state students were, in fact, leaving and going nowhere. The team disaggregated the data by credit hours and noticed that even students with 60–90 credit hours in good academic standing were leaving and not enrolling in another institution to finish their degrees. While the Morgan State staff had previously assumed those students did not need additional assistance as they had comfortably settled into other schools (under National Association for College Admission Counseling standards at the time), the institution realized it had an opportunity to actively reclaim its stop-outs and help those students successfully finish their degrees.
To answer that question, staff from Morgan State got on the phone and simply asked students why they’d left. Through those conversations, they learned money was still the primary hurdle, but not in the way the team had assumed. The students were less focused on paying tuition. Rather, they were dealing with financial-related life circumstances, like taking a job back home to help the family make ends meet.
The phone conversations yielded another important revelation: Students felt lost as to next steps in completing their degrees. At the time, Morgan State had yet to invest in a degree auditing tool. Degrees were only audited upon applying for graduation, which is not an ideal time for students to learn they haven’t met the requirements. The team used the data to justify purchasing DegreeWorks. In the meantime, they approached stop-outs with an audit in hand and an offer to register them for their next classes. In the first semester alone, they won back more than 40 seniors with 90+ credits.
Fast forward a decade, and Morgan State is now using data to assess what is working and not working with remote learning amid a global pandemic, from both the student and faculty perspectives.
“It was March 13, 2020,” Mfume said. “The last normal day. The next day, students left for spring break and never came back.”
Like many institutions, Morgan State went remote, learning to navigate the changes as they went. Fortunately, students and faculty were more than willing to facilitate that learning so the necessary adjustments could be made. According to Mfume, survey response rates have been significantly higher than before the pandemic.
“The students and faculty want us to know how they’re faring,” Mfume said. Armed with that intel, Morgan State has been able to adjust its processes to better meet students’ needs.
The first semester that instruction went online due to the pandemic, students were given the option to choose pass-fail ratings rather than traditional grades. Of course, students would still need to repeat failed courses, but the pass-fail ratings wouldn’t impact their GPAs. Fewer students than expected—including students who would have benefitted from pass-fail ratings—took the option. Survey data revealed that students were unclear about the benefits and impact of opting for pass-fail ratings, and they were asked to make their choices before knowing what their traditional grades would have been. So Morgan State flipped the process and better informed students earlier about their options. In fall 2020, faculty entered traditional grades, and students were given a period of time to decide whether they would rather switch any of those grades to pass-fail.
That same survey data that informed changes to the pass-fail process revealed a strong student preference for synchronous remote learning over asynchronous, even at the onset of COVID-19. The administration had assumed students preferred flexibility, but students wanted set course times that allowed them to engage with faculty and peers.
Mfume credits many success stories like these to a strong partnership with the institutional research office.
“We ask a question, and Dr. Rollins will take it to her team and come back with options,” Mfume said. “Or she’ll ask, ‘Did you really mean to ask this?’”
There are times the IR office proactively shares insights, as well.
“Any time they disaggregate and do a regression analysis on our graduation rates, they always find something interesting,” Mfume said.
At one point, the IR office was able to establish a meaningful threshold for unmet financial need. If 70% of a student’s financial need can be met, the likelihood of the student graduating goes up significantly. That insight alone has been critical for informing institutional aid and funding use, according to Mfume.
“We now know there’s a goal,” she said. “If their unmet need is close and you can dial it back to under that [30%] line, the students will make it. They’ll succeed.”
The IR office also noticed a significant correlation between students passing the freshman orientation course in their first semester and subsequent academic success. That insight affirmed the importance of the freshman orientation curriculum and its delivery in a student’s first term.
What’s more, any first-semester student needing an override to get into orientation will surely get one—thanks to data.