Special Features

  • Featured
  • 04.21.21

Transformation, Data, and Shiny Objects: Moving Beyond Small Wins

  • by eAIR
Transformation, Data, and Shiny Objects: Moving Beyond Small Wins

eAIR spoke with Archie Cubarrubia, Deputy Director, Institutional Transformation, and Matt Crellin, Program Officer, Transformation, both with the U.S. Program, Postsecondary Success of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to gain their perspectives on the roles of IR, IE, and the greater data function in pursuit of improved student success.

This conversation will be continued at the 2021 AIR Forum Virtual. Please join Archie and Matt on Wednesday, May 26, at 12 p.m. ET for their session, Institutional Transformation and the Role of Strategic Data. 

How do you describe institutional transformation in pursuit of improved student success—and why it matters—to people who don’t work in higher education?

Matt Crellin: Improving access and completion is how higher education has traditionally defined success (e.g., “How many enroll?” or “How many graduate?”). But over time, factors such as the rising cost of attending college, skyrocketing student debt, low chances of completion, and even lower chances of economic mobility after students graduate—particularly when you disaggregate the data by students’ race, ethnicity, and family incomes—made it very clear that the “system” isn’t working equitably.

Archie Cubarrubia: And we’ve known that the “system” hasn’t worked equitably for a long time. The racial reckoning we experienced last summer was a long-overdue wakeup call for many of us who see disaggregated student success data in the reports we in IR and IE run and analyze every day.

Yes, access and completion continue to be important; but pressure is mounting for colleges and universities to address equitable value head-on—precisely because of the patterns of inequity that the “system” has allowed to persist for decades, even centuries. In addition to asking “how many enroll?” and “how many graduate?” we should be asking questions like “who enrolls and who doesn’t?”, “who graduates and who doesn’t—and under what conditions?”, and “how well do we as institutions set students up for success after they leave us?”

We know that one-off solutions are not sufficient to address longstanding challenges or to help us take advantage of all our unrealized potential. We can’t “shiny object” our way toward equitable student success—even though shiny objects are important! But what we can and must do is fundamentally re-think and re-do the way we operate as colleges and universities to put students—not us!—at the center of everything we do to ensure that we fulfill our promises to the communities that we were created to serve. That re-thinking and re-doing has been the focus of our work on institutional transformation.

Matt: Through our work at the foundation, we’ve defined transformation as the realignment of an institution’s structures, culture, and business model to create a student experience that results in dramatic and equitable increases in outcomes and educational value. Our evidence and research to date highlight that institutions transform by integrating evidence-based practices that create inclusive and coherent learning environments and leveraging a student-centered mission, catalytic leadership, strategic data use, and strategic finance in a robust continuous improvement process.

At the highest level, how do you think about the IR/IE community’s contributions to institutional transformation efforts?

Archie: The duties and functions of IR are core to institutional transformation. We’ve seen this in our work time and time again, and I’ve experienced this firsthand at the institutions for which I’ve worked. Student success initiatives can really be institutionalized only when they are part of an intentional realignment of an institution’s structures, culture, and business model toward equitable student success. The community brings data and evidence to bear to ensure that intentionality happens. Without IR/IE identifying information needs; collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and reporting data and information; planning and evaluating institutional efforts; serving as stewards of data and information; and educating the institutional community about the use of data and information, these initiatives become nothing more than “shiny objects” that last only as long as the leader who initiated them is there or until the funding runs out.

What insights do you have about the intersection of equity and the data function that can help illuminate or inform this work?

Matt: When you hear about equity and data, most practitioners will tell you that one of the most important intersections includes using disaggregated data to identify inequitable patterns across student groups. Equity-minded data capacity is being aware of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, and it uses quantitative and qualitative data to identify patterns of practice and outcomes. This type of intersection is not only essential for strategic and effective data use, but also can set the stage for critical inquiries into things like campus culture, policies, and practices that may be contributing toward inequities in outcomes.

Disaggregating data is a great place to start, but it more importantly opens the door to examining why certain inequitable patterns are happening in the first place. This creates the opportunity to cultivate a deeper level of capacity around equity-minded inquiry that is needed for transformation, and further data analysis will help drive efforts toward the discovery of new patterns, or provide fresh perspectives about previously examined data to provide a more detailed understanding of the student experience. When these insights emerge, and when they are coupled with a strategic focus on actions for equitable student success, the importance of a data informed approach becomes evident and critical.

Archie, in light of your position with the foundation, what do you see more clearly now that you wish you knew in your previous work as an IR professional?

Archie: I wish I knew how critical even a small report or analysis that I produced as an IR professional would be in the work on institutional transformation—and more critical, for helping institutions pursue more equitable student success. Take it from me: Never doubt that the code you’re working on to pull course pass rates for a gateway English course or that analysis of classroom space to plan for safe campus re-opening—as tedious as they can be—can have very real, tangible impacts on the students you serve.

But for them to have impacts, they need to find an audience—whether your teammates, your supervisor, or a trusted network of colleagues around the institution. If you have a few minutes and a subscription to Disney+, I’d strongly recommend an inspiring episode of Inside Pixar featuring Jessica Heidt, a script supervisor at Pixar who paved the way for improving gender balance in their films. I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say I would bet that we have lot of Jessicas in IR and IE offices at our colleges and universities sitting on some pretty powerful insights that can literally change the world.

Matt, what have you learned about capacities, including and beyond the data function, that has energized your passion for and commitment to institutional transformation?

Matt: When I think about an institution’s capacity for transformation, the question that I keep coming back to in my head is, “what enables an institution to make meaningful progress toward equitable student success?” We believe there are some common features like putting equitable student success at the center of the work, and having a clearly-defined perspective on what this means, and leveraging evidence-based practices. We’re observing from institutions that are undergoing transformation that they also need to have essential operational strengths in place that allow resources, processes, and routines to implement, coordinate, and sustain transformation.

With the help of field experts (including at AIR!), we have invested in studying a handful of capacities that we have found to be critical to transformation in addition to IR and data, such as leadership, strategic finance, institutional policy, and information technology. When these capacities are strengthened, they allow institutions to continue the work of equitable student success despite changing contexts like leadership transitions, federal or state policy changes, budget cuts, global pandemics, or natural disasters. We are observing in the Frontier Set initiative that robust IR capacity can be a promising indicator of an institution’s ability to transform.

One of the insights that I am most excited about is how these types of capacities drive action when they start to show up inside of a silo-spanning team: where experts from various areas of the institution start to tackle some of transformation’s toughest adaptive challenges. For example, data availability often relies on information technology, institutional policy is often determined by those in leadership positions, and finance pays for each component of an institution’s transformation efforts. When you start to identify and strengthen that kind of interdependency, you can begin to make real progress at the team and institutional levels. This starts to become more obvious when an institution moves from one-off improvements and toward institutionally spanning functions like improving data literacy to drive effective practice.

Finally, I’m incredibly energized by how associations like AIR are working to situate institutional capacity development in racial and socioeconomic equity more intentionally. This type of approach is creating space for deep reflection and action when developed with a critical equity lens.

What new hobby or activity have you discovered (or rediscovered) in the past year of pandemic lockdown?

Matt: I’ve always enjoyed the experience of going out to share a meal with friends, but when going out was no longer an option, I started to learn how to bring the experience home for myself by honing in my cooking and mixology skills. I’ve had some fun successes in the past year (learning how to sous vide has been rewarding) and some notable failures (pasta making was a real rodeo). I also enjoy staying active, so finding new and creative ways to workout has been a wonderful outlet. If I can improve my lifting technique and refine my cookie recipe, I’ll call it a win in 2021.

Archie: Great question! I wish I had the discipline to approach the quarantine with an intentional plan for personal development, but I didn’t, so I’ll just say that I’ve very much appreciated the opportunity to really get to know my husband’s work persona. Conversely, he’s gotten to know mine. I think he can’t wait until I travel for work again!  

AIR Forum Virtual

Related Session:

Institutional Transformation and the Role of Strategic Data
Wednesday, May 26, 12 p.m. ET



Archie CubarrubiaDr. Archie P. Cubarrubia leads the team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation responsible for understanding how colleges and universities transform themselves to dramatically improve their performance and eliminate race and income as predictors of student success and translating that understanding into tools, methods, and resources. He previously served as Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness at Miami Dade College.


Matt Crellin

Matt Crellin manages the institutional capacities portfolio as part of foundation’s postsecondary success strategy and works with grantees and partners to understand how leadership, information technology, data and research, strategic finance, and policy contribute to institutional transformation for equitable student success. Prior to the foundation, Matt was a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems where he worked on areas of strategic finance in postsecondary education, with an emphasis on connecting financial policy and data.

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