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NY educators try to turn data into student success

Bret Jaspers
Representatives from area SUNY colleges talked about using data to drive student completion rates at a recent training at SUNY Broome.

New York's colleges are concerned about retaining students. 

Only about a quarter of New York's community college students get an associates degree in three years. That statistic doesn't include part-timers, students who transfer, or students who take a break between semesters. But still, it's a problem.

Educators are using data and analytics to figure out what to do, but it can be a struggle to turn data into action.

At a recent training session for educators at SUNY Broome, near Binghamton, a group gathered from campuses around the region. These people are the converted: they believe campus statistics can help them see students through to graduation.

Ellyn Artis led the training. She's a consultant with the ed-tech firm Hobson's, which licenses software to over a dozen SUNY campuses.

"Students that take developmental classes right away tend to graduate faster," she said as an example of how data can help. "We know students who take summer courses tend to graduate faster."

Numbers can reveal trends. That makes sense. What seemed more difficult was using data to change course. Data might be incomplete. Faculty, staff or administration may be skeptical about it. Campus leaders might look at the data and just keep doing things the same way.

Several people at the training talked about challenges at their campuses.

"We're reporting on maybe statistics that happened in 2015. It's already 2017," said Michele Forte, of Empire State College and Open SUNY, which houses the university system's online courses. "We're already 18 months behind, because it takes so long to run the reports and analyze and curate, and in the meantime the student population is progressing and progressing."

And getting faculty to look at the data and adjust what they do is not easy.

"We can't just throw data at faculty and expect them to embrace it and understand it unless they realize that there's a problem that they're trying to solve," said Larry Dugan, who works at Monroe Community College, near Rochester. 

That problem could be classroom attendance, for example, which affects graduation down the line.

Michele Forte said the desire to help students is already there.

"We have people who are very, very dedicated to student success. And now we need to align the numbers, right? Because money follows values."

And numbers, she said, often inform those values.