Over the past 10 years, the Office of Institutional Research at Case Western Reserve University has built partnerships across student-facing offices, bringing out the best in both student affairs and Institutional Research. This collaboration, initially focused on measuring outcomes of student programs and collecting metrics on strategic plans, has blossomed into an exchange of data to help answer complex questions facing offices and students.
How many students did we reach over the course of the academic year, and how does that compare to the general student population?
The biggest question on the minds of our student affairs offices is whether they are reaching students. At our core, Institutional Research is built to help student-facing offices answer these types of questions by providing relevant data for such explorations. By sharing with us the students they have served, we are able to return relevant data on the students they have engaged, such as class year, major, and some demographic characteristics. How those students compare to the overall population provides insights into which groups of students are over- or under-represented based on their expectations.
Providing data about engaged students also allows student affairs offices more information to work with when completing annual reports. Not only are they able to report the number of programs offered and the count of student participants, but they can now report on the characteristics of students engaged over the course of the year. With this information, departments can craft nuanced year-end reports, showcasing their unique student engagement approaches.
How does engagement with university programs influence student retention and graduation?
The biggest questions facing Institutional Research are often about retention and graduation. Understanding the importance of student engagement and co-curricular experiences, as well as how student sense of belonging plays a role in student retention and persistence, it became important for us to harness the data from our student affairs offices when exploring retention and persistence.
One major benefit of exchanging data with student affairs offices is that we now have more data than ever before, providing us with more potential variables when trying to predict retention. We can now empirically evaluate anecdotes about how student mental health, conduct offenses, or career-preparation experiences impact student likelihood to stay and graduate. Exploring the potential association between student participation in various activities and subsequent connections to graduation or retention to the next academic year has become a desired analysis for both student affairs and academic leadership.
After several years of a broad-brush exploration of student engagement’s impact on student success, we have now moved into a more focused approach. Large programs, services, and events that are hallmarks of campus life are not as valuable in predicting student outcomes as more focused, intensive, or deliberate programming. We are moving beyond the conclusion that engaged students are more likely to retain or graduate and into an exploration of which aspects of student engagement are most impactful.
Further, we are considering the cross-engagement—where we see students engage with multiple offices over the course of the year—and how engagement in multiple offices together can exponentially impact the student experience. Cross-engagement data is beneficial for several reasons, but mostly because it exposes the overlap of participants, which in turn could create opportunities for partnership among student-facing offices. For example, one anticipated connection was found between offices that provide leadership development and opportunities for students, where many students were engaged with both offices as opposed to just one. As many student affairs offices continue to be challenged to staff adequately and efficiently utilize their budgets, finding as many opportunities as possible for collaboration has allowed offices to do more when they may have less.
How do we continue to support our Student Affairs colleagues?
Building relationships with student affairs colleagues has deepened our understanding of how we can serve the institution and how we can support each other’s missions. We are consistently called upon to provide professional development and training for student affairs offices on topics such as survey development, data analysis, and reporting analytics. As they have been tasked with basic data collection, many have taken it upon themselves to build more advanced skills to make meaning of their own data and engage with us more deeply. We are seeing our student affairs offices build data literacy, which has increased the quality of deliverables and better equipped them to tell their unique stories. With a better understanding of how we can support them, student affairs offices have continued to engage IR in identifying metrics and outcomes as they pertain to ongoing strategic initiatives as well.
Our student affairs colleagues guide us on aspects of the student experience that need deeper exploration, programs that should be evaluated, and nuances to our broad data collection instruments to make them more effective and meaningful to student-facing teams. Providing context around aspects of the student experience that we think are valuable when conducting student surveys or interpreting results helps give our reporting additional weight. As university leadership continues to emphasize retention and graduation, we are equipped through these partnerships to participate in these conversations not just through an academic lens, but also through a co-curricular lens. As an added benefit, student affairs representatives are also key personnel to help increase awareness of IR projects, reports, and analytics, assisting us in communicating to a much broader audience than ever before. By working cohesively with student affairs offices, we have been able to create a network where everyone benefits and becomes more able to enhance their own work through shared resources and awareness.
Although this work has not always been perfect, the partnerships established have led to improvements across the student affairs division as well as IR. Understandably, it took considerable time to build trust in sharing data and promoting the result. What started out as a rough sketch turned into an interactive data visualization where student engagement came to life. The first academic year provided the opportunity to showcase a data visualization that included 12 offices and 6,146 students. After seeing the interactive visualization and building a firm understanding of the data, we were able to capture 7,512 students from 15 offices the following year. The most recent year we saw 15 offices share data accounting for 7,685 students. As this dataset continues to grow and becomes more diverse as we incorporate more variables and offices, we are hoping we can answer deeper and more challenging questions facing the university. We are certain these partnerships have benefited us, the office of student affairs, students, and Case Western Reserve University as a whole.
Eddie Bolden is the Director of Institutional Research at Case Western Reserve University. In this role, he provides data and analytics support to leadership across the university. He has been in Institutional Research at CWRU since 2016 and has led the office since 2020. Prior to CWRU, Eddie spent time as a school psychologist focused on assessment of children. Eddie holds a Ph.D. in Evaluation and Measurement from Kent State University, a Masters in Psychology from Cleveland State University, and a Bachelor's in Psychology from Mercyhurst University.
Ken Tubbs is the Institutional Research Analyst at Case Western Reserve University. As the IR Analyst, Ken is responsible for a variety of data submissions including rankings, guidebooks, and other data exchanges. His specialty is in data analytics and Tableau dashboard development. Ken joined CWRU in 2022, and before that he served as the Director of Assessment for Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity. He holds two Master's degrees in education (Assessment Evaluation and Research and Higher Education Administration) and a Bachelor's degree in Classics.