Interview with Chris Mullin

Chris Mullin is the Program Director for Policy Analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Interview by Marlene Clapp
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eAIR: Please describe what you do in your role with AACC.

My chief responsibility is to provide analysis and supporting data to guide and enhance AACC’s advocacy efforts. Additionally, I respond to immediate needs for the analysis of federal legislative, regulatory, and related policies while also playing a central role in shaping AACC’s long-term federal policy agenda.
eAIR: You held a number of fellowship and teaching positions prior to your work at AACC. One of your past roles was as a postdoctoral fellow with the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC), where you worked with a longitudinal unit-record system. This is a particularly hot topic in higher education right now. Please share some of the details of your work with the Council.

While at the IERC, I continued the longitudinal study of the 113,600 students in the Illinois high school class of 2002 through college and into the workforce. Prior work on the cohort provided a basic understanding of its demographics, college enrollment, and attainment. I was able to secure workforce data shortly before I left IERC. I was exposed to a whole different perspective on student behaviors and appreciation for the data that tells the story. One of the largest takeaways from a policy perspective is that these data can answer many questions, and that we shouldn't build data systems to answer just one or two policy questions. For example, when I examined students who enrolled at a community college for the first two semesters after high school and did not re-enroll, I found the plurality was working at restaurants where one pays after they eat. For states interested in re-engaging students with "some college," knowing where these students are located opens up the possibility for partnerships to re-engage the students and help them complete a credential. In all of my conversations with policymakers, the "where are they now" question has never been asked.
One of the largest takeaways from a policy perspective is that these data can answer many questions, and that we shouldn't build data systems to answer just one or two policy questions.
eAIR: What led you to work at a policy level? Based on your experience, what steps or preparation might professionals benefit from to ready themselves for such work?

My path to policy work was not intentional. As a doctoral student I was focused on becoming a faculty member. In fact, the motivation to apply for a policy position came during a casual conversation with a policymaker one night. (Earlier in the day I had flown back from meeting with a Research I university as a finalist in a job search). Shortly after the conversation, I applied for the IERC job, and in just under two weeks they flew me out to interview and offered me a job. My experience working with researchers such as Linda Hagedorn taught me the importance of having access to data, of which IERC had an extensive collection. In terms of preparation, I would say that those interested in working in policy stay curious, learn to rely on primary documents as opposed to summaries, read "Politics and the English Language" in George Orwell's Why I Write, invest in yourself by attending various meetings to meet new people and workshops to keep your skills current, and spend a lot of time familiarizing yourself with datasets such as those managed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

eAIR: Please describe some of your analytical work in higher education that has been particularly rewarding.

In my role at AACC, I engage in analytical work on a daily basis -- all of it rewarding because I exist in a culture that appreciates how data can inform the discussion. Each of my analyses, no matter how complex or straightforward, is conducted for a purpose.
eAIR: In terms of the increasing calls for greater accountability that the entire higher education community is facing, in your view, what are some of the special challenges for community colleges?

The accountability movement in higher education is a needed one. The issue at the moment is how to define success. There are multiple ways to define it for community colleges given the fact that many of our students are not traditional-aged. Consider these two facts: 7 percent of the community college student body is under the age of 18, and one-quarter already has postsecondary credentials (8 percent have bachelor's degrees or higher). This makes determining intent and success for the student body challenging. AACC has made gains in understanding the progress and outcomes of entering students through the development of the Voluntary Framework of Accountability,  which was developed by community colleges, for community colleges.
eAIR: You were one of the presenters at the 2012 National Data Institute (NDI). How did you get involved with NDI? What was one of your most rewarding moments from the Institute?
I was first invited to participate in NDI in 2011 as part of a panel. Then, in 2012, I was honored to be asked to be a small-group facilitator. I am not exactly sure of the reason I was selected, but having a background as a higher education faculty member, in addition to working extensively with NSF and NCES data, likely helped. Aside from seeing my group’s presentations (which were informative and engaging), rewarding moments at NDI included having the chance to see the participants engage with the talented NCES staff on issues of substance related to their research in addition to technical help. It reinforced the value of collaboration and was indicative of the type of learning environment that promotes growth and rewards intellectual curiosity.
eAIR: As a researcher and policy analyst, what has been one of the most difficult challenges you have faced?

It is finding the right way to communicate the results of analyses so that lay people can understand them and experts can believe them. Working for an advocacy organization carries with it the stigma that the work is biased in some way. I work very hard to be transparent with my analyses to ensure the reader can trust what I put forth. (I would rather be out in front of an issue than behind it.)  In addition, I am heavily engaged with the research community—I serve on two editorial boards, review conference proposals, write papers—to ensure I am as up-to-date as possible on the latest developments in analytical approaches and relevant research findings.
eAIR: What inspires you the most about the work you do?

The students, staff, and administrators of the colleges inspire me. I have had several opportunities to interact with individuals on campuses and learn of the Herculean efforts they undertake to assist the people of their communities. When one of my policy briefs or analyses helps ensure a student can afford college or an institution will receive a grant, it makes me feel good about what I do.
eAIR: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

I think professional development is an ongoing endeavor. As a knowledge leader—and that is what researchers are at our core—it is paramount to continually sharpen our skills to best understand new information and determine how the topic studied can work in the best interest of our students and communities.
Marlene Clapp is Senior Institutional Research Analyst at UMass Dartmouth.