By Tony Losongco
The summer before starting grad school for college counseling, I got a student job with the university’s institutional research office. I call it the best three-month campus orientation I could have received. It wasn’t because of the pay or the time spent on campus. It was because I learned about the university through its data.
The mere mention of “data” scares some folks. Some might have entered the counseling field thinking they would never have to use math or stats again. But data, when collected and reported responsibly, can give us a clearer picture of our students. This helps our students both during the admission process and as they complete college, particularly in identifying and addressing the challenges for underrepresented students.
Data can show us areas for improvement. For example, at my university, the acceptance rate for African-American first-time freshman applicants is 41 percentage points lower than the rate for white applicants.
But data can also show us whether we have improved. Over a two-year period, my university’s six-year graduation rate has gone up by about 10 percentage points, and the gap between underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM graduation rates has been almost cut in half.
If you’re interested in doing more with data in 2016, I suggest the following New Year’s resolutions:
- Visit an institutional research office website: See what data a college can offer you and your students. All colleges should have easily accessible Common Data Sets. Some have slick tables and interactive dashboards. We put a lot of stock in college rankings, but what about the numbers that form the basis for the rankings?
- Question the numbers: If you know some math or statistics, great. If not, just make sure you have context when someone uses numbers to tell you a college’s success story or distinguish one school from another. When you see a graduation rate reported, look at things like the cohort size and the definition of “graduation rate” before you make a judgment based on that rate.
- Consider what the numbers mean for your students: This is where you use your counseling skills. Look at differences between subgroups. Look at students’ outcomes in college. If students who need remediation have a lower graduation rate than students who enter proficient in English and math (which is true at my university), tell your students to take placement tests seriously.
Data is an exciting frontier in counseling. I wish my graduate program devoted more instructional time to it. We don’t have to crunch numbers all day on a calculator to harness the enormous data processing power of today’s software and online tools. Armed with data, we can guide our students to make sound college planning decisions and advocate for those who need guidance the most.