With the start of the new decade, we have seen numerous significant events, including a pandemic that has massively impacted our institutions and has the potential to fundamentally transform the nature of education and work well into the future. The challenges facing all of us due to this health emergency are unprecedented in modern times, requiring us to rethink and question a number of our most basic assumptions about higher education.
At the same time, we have other issues to confront, as we see social unrest across our country stemming most recently from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but with roots reaching back to the inception of our republic and beyond. We have to recognize that this unrest is not about one death. Our society is afflicted by a troubling history going back 400 years that continues into today’s society through systemic racism and structural inequities. It is past time for meaningful change.
Higher education has a central role in addressing inequity and, while this is a complex issue that we cannot solve alone, it raises a question. As institutional research professionals, what is our role in addressing this issue? We typically do not serve students directly. Indeed, some of us are based in central administrative offices and can go weeks without ever seeing a student. How do we make a difference?
To begin thinking about this, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
- Is disaggregating our data important?
As we all know, this can be as simple as releasing reports through our reporting systems that provide data filterable by race/ethnicity, age, first generation status, and more. However, while that will provide a glimpse into relevant data, does it provide actionable information? We need to use our data to tell the story of our students—where they come from, the barriers they have faced, what factors influence their success, and their perceptions of their educational experiences. We need to highlight who our students are, especially those students who have been underserved and indeed silenced by majority culture in the postsecondary paradigm and learn how we can best support them. While this kind of work has been undertaken by many, it is likely not ubiquitous among colleges and universities, and so it must continue to be advanced as a best practice.
- Do we need to look beyond traditional and compliance-based measures to understand student experiences?
Student success must be construed in terms of equity and representation in curriculum and institutional leadership, closing the achievement gap for underserved and disenfranchised student populations, and cultivating campus communities where social justice endeavors can make meaningful gains. Traditional measures are limited in scope and we must look more broadly to ensure we are providing meaningful information for our institutions.
- What role does analytics play in supporting equity?
There are examples across many fields where solutions have been developed by looking at the majority group only. We see this in medicine, where drug treatments are tested on males or there is more funding for diseases that impact males. It also impacts artificial intelligence where homogeny in model training datasets for facial recognition systems have resulted in biased systems, and when racial discrimination is inherent to the machine learning forecasts used to inform parole board release decisions. For us, in education, we need to ensure that as we develop predictive models, we include a diverse sample. We must recognize the factors that may be predictive for one population may differ from the factors that are predictive for other groups. We need to build our data and our models in ways that embrace diversity, so we can provide data and findings that will enable our institutions to develop equitable approaches to support student inclusion, progress, and completion.
- Do you have a voice in college decision making that you can leverage to support all of your students?
Depending on the organization of your institution, you may have access to senior decision makers or you may have a more operational function. Regardless, look for opportunities to advocate for your students within your organization. Your institutional leaders have a lot of priorities, so make equity for your students—as told through the data—a priority and shine a spotlight on the populations you serve who have historically been kept from achieving equitable educational progress and outcomes as compared to their peers. We cannot hide from those areas of weakness any longer. Demonstrate courage and provide campus decision makers and policy shapers with data and reporting that is authentically representative of the rapidly changing needs and opportunities of the constituents you serve.
These are challenging times that require equally rigorous engagement with practical questions that can move us toward greater institutional equity. The questions in this article are a starting point and represent just a few of the ways we can make a difference to recognize the individuality of our students and use our data to help create an equitable future for the communities we serve. As with all social issues of substance in higher education, IR professionals fall along a spectrum of preparedness to engage with and advance this discourse, and you may already find yourself beyond the marker where these questions reside. Even then, there are many in our institutions who have yet to grasp their significance, so the responsibility still falls to us to elevate them among our colleagues and leaders as we are able.
The resources below might be useful to you or others at your institution who are interested in diving deeper into the role data, analytics, policy, and research have to play in creating a more just, equitable society in general, and the higher education landscape in particular.
- Gause, C. P. (2017). Leadership, equity, and social justice in American higher education: A reader. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
- Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Racism and racial equity in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Wiley Subscription Services, a Wiley Company, at Jossey-Bass.
- O'Neil, C. (2018). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. London: Penguin Books.