May 12, 2023

How Data Practices Can Power Equity in Higher Education

UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building is launching an all-new initiative as part of a longtime partnership with Anthology to transform how HBCUs tap their data to make institutional decisions and tell their stories. The Foundations of Data for Student Success initiative will train and credential a cross-functional group of HBCU leaders and professionals from 10 schools on how to build sound data infrastructure, improve data quality, manage data, analyze data, and showcase student success using data. The Institute was founded in 2006 to partner with Black colleges and universities to propel the shared pursuit of student success, community advancement, and racial justice equity.

UNCF Director of Knowledge Management Phillip Wallace and Anthology Senior Manager of Professional Services Jennifer Schiller discussed how data architecture and education technology can support equity in higher education, how institutions can build more equitable data practices, and the upcoming joint Foundations of Data for Student Success initiative. It’s a conversation touching on the “why” around data, outlined by Ben Jones in his work, Data Literacy Fundamentals. In a word,” writes Jones, “the chief goal of data is wisdom.”

JS: Tell us a little about your background; what brought you to data stewardship activities in your career?

PW: I've been in higher education for 16 years, beginning with advancement, then on to strategic planning and institutional research, then human resources, and now knowledge management — all with a focus on providing data to inform decision-making. Part of my role in strategic planning was to analyze data from across all university functions and to provide insights and recommendations to senior leadership regarding key issues. In the process, I discovered data issues (access, sources, definitions, etc.), which often limited my ability to just use the data to solve problems. This eventually led to me leading a cross-functional data governance committee on campus.

In my current role as director of knowledge management with UNCF's Institute for Capacity Building, my team's mission is to partner with internal and external stakeholders to help shape data strategy, cultivate communities of data fluency, facilitate data maturity, and lead in data advocacy. This experience in my strategic planning role was pivotal in shaping my entire paradigm for engaging and stewarding data.

JS: What does equity in tech mean to you?

PW: When I think of equity in tech, I am primarily thinking of EdTech companies. As I see it, equity is a factor in three phases: in development of products, in pricing and sales approaches, and in how these companies partner with institutions.

Equity in Development

Have you ever seen a product demo or finally implemented a highly touted program only to find that it seems that it doesn't quite fit for your kind of institution with your kind of issues? Or for your kind of students, faculty, or staff? So now you're looking to ditch it for the product from the company that "gets it."

What do digital solutions look like if the vision is seen through a lens of equity? In a Campus Technology article, Reed Dickson identified "14 Equity Considerations for Ed Tech" using a framework which defined four kinds of equity considerations: tech, accessibility, experiential, and identity (or TAXI). Perhaps something along these lines can help shape equity before a product hits the sales floor.

Equity in Pricing

There was a program we used when I was working at a relatively small, tuition-dependent private university that was a great tool but pricey (even after they applied the education discount). I figured that it was worth it, especially if we were able to use it to realize enrollment and retention gains. It ended up not being enough "bang" for our limited bucks, regardless of how I tried to engage them.

When I moved to a large public university system, the same guy from the same company was proposing creative discounts and packages that weren't on the table at the smaller school. While I understand economies of scale, the unintended consequence is that they were willing to bend more for those who didn't need it as much. An equity-first mindset would challenge these norms, even down to how sales teams are incentivized.

All of this is before the technology even gets in the door.

Equity in Partnership

It is possible to have a well-designed product and a reasonable pricing structure but still not be a good fit. How you engage institutions and the people they represent matters. Do you view them through a lens of deficiency? Are you eager to just get it over with and move on? Are you always looking for the upsell? You are probably not an equitable partner.

JS: What areas of focus do you consider important to building equitable data practices in higher education?

PW: First, understand the data issues as human issues. Every decision, every analysis, every inquiry should ultimately be centered on serving people. We inquire and analyze to better understand people or the issues affecting them so that we can better serve them. Education is intrinsically human centered, but there we often get so distracted within our silos or advancing thought leadership within our field that we pursue research and analytics for their own sake. It is possible to analyze data, identify key patterns, and even recommend action and still miss everything.

The chief goal of data is wisdom (or better decision-making), but the chief goal of wisdom in higher education is to serve people — primarily students, but also the employees who altogether make our institutions what they are. We cannot be content to serve some of our people, our "traditional" people, our affluent people, our people who "fit,” but all of our people. It is hard but worthy work. It takes intentionality to shape a data culture built on this. I am fortunate to be part of a broader team that shares this commitment. UNCF's ICB functions within our ACT framework in which we want to be Authentic, Compassionate, and Transparent in all of our work. It is much easier to be a human-centered data leader in a culture that is similarly aligned.

Second, take on the posture of a learner. Understanding data issues as human issues implies our shared humanity — and, therefore, limitations. Even with subject matter expertise and the strongest experience and skill set, we will still have blind spots. It is important to listen and learn before seeking to solve problems. Just as a healthy data culture relies on and cultivates analytical expertise, it needs to be intentional about cultivating:

Humility - honoring the work, wisdom, and worth of those who were there before us, who work alongside us, and who stand in front of us. What can we learn from them? What blind spots do we have that they might be able to illuminate? To be clear, this is not self-doubt or self-deprecation.

Compassion - understanding the "why" before addressing the "what now." What values, priorities, and constraints have contributed to the current issue? What traumas, triggers, and hurdles might impede progress? How can we meet people where they are in order to get them where they need to be?

Patience - taking time to build up people, not just solutions. Sometimes, we like to swoop in, save the day, then go back to our fortresses of solitude. Sometimes, it's easier to just do it ourselves. But is there an opportunity to equip and empower others so that they need less of our heroics? Do we want to go alone and fast, or together and far?

Leverage Expertise to Establish Partnerships

To build equitable data practices in higher education, we bring subject matter expertise and technical excellence to the table in a way that not only improves decision-making but does so in a way that brings value beyond a specific deliverable. An oft-cited report states that about 80% of data science initiatives fail to provide any ROI, largely because those initiatives are not aligned to key organizational priorities. Strategic partnership seeks to reverse this by focusing on these priorities. It also helps to identify and address blind spots (like equity gaps) and can help develop a socially conscious data culture.

JS: What can data help higher education achieve? What is its most significant value?

PW: Higher education is at a point where it is being asked to do more than it ever thought it could. It has also been increasingly on the defensive as more people ask, "Is it worth it?" Data are foundational for institutions of higher education to be able to understand, anticipate, and solve the issues it faces, as well as for higher education as a whole to be able to demonstrate its value to a skeptical public.

JS: Can you share why UNCF sees data management practices as integral to HBCU success?

PW: I would say that data management practices are integral to any institution of higher education. Based on my experience over the last 16 years in higher education, I would argue that most institutions need improvement in this area. The big difference is that HBCUs, like all schools with fewer resources, tend to have a smaller margin for error than those with more resources. So a major factor is being able to proactively address data issues so that they spend less time, energy, and money putting out preventable fires.

Another factor is that we want our institutions to be better equipped to understand and tell their own stories. Quite often, HBCUs are absent from national discussions on higher education. When they are included, it is usually through a deficit lens. We do not want our institutions to be talked about; we want them to be listened to.

JS: What are you excited to live and learn as part of the Foundations of Data for Student Success initiative?

PW: This project addresses a number of focus areas of knowledge management: data stewardship, data strategy, data fluency, and data maturity. It will enable campuses to engage more effectively in the fifth area, data advocacy. In addition, it aligns with the strategic needs that many of our partner institutions have expressed — everyone with whom I have shared this project saw it as the right project for the right time. As one person put it, "This is just what our campus needs."

PW: Okay, Jenn, let me flip the script here. Why are you excited about the Foundations of Data for Student Success initiative?

JS: Foundations of Data for Student Success is a universal need in higher education. That said, not all institutions are equipped with the resources, infrastructure, or expertise to execute a responsive and dynamic data management plan. At their core, data management plans are living documents that ensure that an institution’s data is housed in a trustworthy environment, representative of the community it serves, and leveraged to promote continuous improvement. Data management plans challenge the status quo, promote equity in data usage, and ensure that the infrastructure is sustainable over time. 

JS: Okay, last question here, why partner with Anthology?

PW: Anthology is the combination of four companies that have been leaders in EdTech and is a trusted partner. It’s a partnership in the sense that the team at Anthology is committed to supporting our work and achieving our goals. Team members at Anthology, leaders like you, Jenn, are consistently demonstrating an understanding of equity in tech that goes beyond buzzwords and frankly, is not common in EdTech. We knew that Anthology had the technical expertise, but the team under your leadership showed that we could trust the company to partner with our schools in a way that was authentic, compassionate, and transparent.

Headshot of Jennifer A Schiller, Ph.D.

Jennifer A Schiller, Ph.D.

Sr Manager, Consulting, Professional Services

Jennifer Schiller, Ph.D., has extensive experience leading institutional and student learning initiatives in the public and private sectors. She leverages horizontal and vertical leadership skills in her day-to-day work that drive effective outcomes for both higher education institutions and business stakeholders.

As an executive coach, she architects data strategy, change management, and learning analytic services for higher education leaders that leverage data to improve student success metrics. Schiller's team provides implementation and strategic advising offerings to promote successful outcomes in education. Her publications include peer-reviewed and mainstream sources, and she excels at bringing those findings to life in executive business review and professional development settings.

Schiller holds a doctoral degree in teacher education with a specialization in data literacy and diagnostic instruction. Her expertise is in action research methods that create effective K-20 teaching and learning partnerships. Schiller’s academic interests focus on continuous improvement, organizational change management, student learning analytics, and reflective practice.