How to Become a Data-Driven Student Affairs Professional

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” -Steve Jobs

Our blog post Why SA Pros Need to Become Data Experts in 2017 gained a lot of popularity in the student affairs and higher education community. Do student affairs professionals really need to be data experts? That’s a great question to ask, but not necessarily the question we should be asking.

Let’s shift our mindset to this: If SA pros need to become data expertshow are we going to get there, together?

Steve Jobs reminds us that everything is made up. Everything that you see around you. From your desk, to the pen you’re using, to the laptop, tablet, or smartphone you’re reading this on, was created by a robot or a person. Some things are created well and some are not.

The same goes with the things that we choose to create in our environments at our institutions. Our best programs, student support services, and residence halls we build were all made up. When we take this approach to working with data for the first time — it’s inspiring!

We have the opportunity to create new data processes, workflows, and ways to become friends with institutional data.

We can connect the data we already have and understand how we have the ability to create things from the ground up. If you don’t like the way you’re collecting, interpreting, and analyzing data now, consider starting from scratch. After all, someone was once in a similar spot learning the ropes of understanding data and its ability to impact the student experience in positive ways.

In highlighting our last post, student affairs professionals should be better equipped in understanding, analyzing and using data. Adding a goal of becoming a data expert isn’t out of reach. Whether you want to understand the holistic student experience, add more personalization to services or student engagement, change institutional culture, or you want to become a data pioneer, we hope to empower student affairs professionals on their data journey.

Expanding Your Data Skillset

“Without data you’re simply a person with an opinion.”

We should be proactive about the data that is placed in front of us, whether data is presented in stories or numbers. We can choose to interpret the data ourselves, although we don’t always have the time. We must partner with those professionals who we already consider experts on campus to so we can develop our data skillset.

Beyond KPIs (key performance indicators), educators must develop both a critical thinking mindset and learn how to analyze data. These are a few questions I had a hard time answering when I first entered the realm of data analyzation:

If it wasn’t you collecting the data, where did it come from?

How can we determine if it’s reliable or valid?

Is the data relevant?

Do the results make us feel comfortable or more successful in our work?

And the hardest question of all: What does the data really show us?

The best advice I received about gathering data in student affairs was, “You manage what you measure.” Priorities are shown through action and behaviors. If there are metrics that I think are important to me as an educator that I don’t know off the top of my head, they’re probably not that important.

Inviting Diverse Data Perspectives to the Table

There are challenges to interpreting data on our own. We must partner with our Institutional Review Board (IRB) offices, assessment professionals, and people who have an unbiased view of our data.

It’s important to hold each other accountable through collecting and analyzing data by inviting diverse professionals to the table. And when people show up, we must challenge ourselves to understand their lens and how their perspective brings value.

We need stakeholders at the table with unbiased views when data is being interpreted. We also need diverse perspectives to be shared in safe spaces, so we can then understand how to be more inclusive on our campuses for students, from how the dining hall staff interacts with students to how we’re building an inclusive programming model, where students not only feel heard, but they’re seen and engaged with.

When we invite diverse perspectives, we understand how to support the ‘whole student’ and brainstorm new ways to reach out to students who feel unsupported.

Almost every department collects data on campus:

Residence Life and Housing collects data.

Academic Advising collects data.

The fitness center collects data around usage.

Admissions and Enrollment collect data.

Marketing collects data.

Typically, everyone on campus collects data because they need to provide a report at the end of the semester or the end of the year to their supervisor or departmental head. Whether it be a report about accreditation, retention rates, or the correlations between students and services – we review them to better understand student behavior, prove student learning, or maybe to receive additional funding for the next academic year.

No matter what office we work in or decided to work with, we need to provide context around data.

The Harvard Business Review on managing organizations reminds us that,

“Correlation doesn’t imply causation.”

What does that mean? Sometimes we can overvalue particular metrics and undervalue others based on our lens. Sometimes the data seems easy to analyze and we choose not to challenge ourselves to take a different stance. Sometimes we put too much trust in our intuition and ‘hunches’ rather than looking at what the data is trying to communicate to us. When data starts to reinforce — or better yet, contradict — people’s gut feelings, that’s when people start to understand why a data-driven culture is so important on campus.

Bringing campus life professionals together helps tell a story with the data to communicate its value.

Beginning a Data-Driven Career

If you’re hoping to transition into an assessment role at an institution, it’s great to keep in mind as a new professional starting to job search or someone who wants to make a functional area switch under the umbrella of student affairs.

If you’re looking to implement a culture of assessment there are many great resources on how this type of initiative needs to start from the ‘top’ of a student affairs or institutional organization.

In this video conversation called Launching and Building a Career in Student Affairs hosted by the Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL), they answer questions that may be a mystery (until recently) to fellow student affairs professionals just beginning their data-driven journey:

Here are questions we’ve tracked so you can hear the great advice from the experts themselves:

What does a typical day look like in your role? (10:25)

What has been the most challenging experience in the student affairs assessment profession? How did you overcome it? (15:40)

What is your “go-to” resource to stay up-to-date with student affairs new and assessment practices? (27:18)

What is the most important assessment skill you think all student affairs professionals should have? (38:32)

What opportunities in the field or for the future do you see for student affairs work? (52:49)

And remember:

Data doesn’t create meaning: we do.

Developing a skill from its most foundational point takes time. About 10,000 hours to be exact, says our friend Malcolm Gladwell. That’s almost 417 days. So don’t down on yourself when you’re just beginning this work.

We have a responsibility to spend more time interpreting data and making meaning of it in a myriad of ways. When we empower ourselves to become our own data-driven experts, we feel more confident in making the right decisions, at the right time, for the right students.

Tweet us at @themoderncampus to continue the conversation about how to become a data-driven higher education professional.

Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham (she/hers) is a former Community Engagement Manager at Modern Campus Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.