Data-Informed Decision Making

Data is a critical component of Frontier Set sites’ efforts. As part of the initiative, all sites commit to tracking a set of key performance indicators from a common metrics framework that includes:

  • Credit accumulation threshold
  • Credit completion ratio
  • Gateway course completion ratio
  • Retention rate
  • Graduation rate
  • Number of completions

A close look at data can indicate where energy and resources should be focused, sometimes with surprising results. Data provide a clear way to benchmark and set goals, track the success of changes implemented across an institution, and learn what does and does not work to make future efforts more fruitful. It can also generate urgency, and then validate the following change efforts.


Infrastructure is a prerequisite to the effective use of data. Fayetteville State University found that data-driven continuous improvement requires both personnel and physical resources to collect, disseminate, and analyze data—as well as guidelines for how to actually use that data to make improvements.

Florida International University noted the same need for infrastructure, and shared that after establishing the necessary data infrastructure, they’ve been empowered to make more data-driven decisions than ever before. They use data as a way to chart their course—when data showed they had room to improve their student-advisor ratios and course failure rates, they paired these findings with perspectives of faculty, staff, and leadership to determine where to begin. With initiatives like this, they have come to realize they can and should offer more support to more stakeholders regarding how to access and use data for decision-making across the institution.


Georgia State University places data squarely at the center of their transformation journey: “Institutional transformation is using data-driven interventions at scale to combat known hurdles faced by first-generation and low-income students, including understanding how to navigate complex university systems like degree-mapping and registration.” For instance, GSU launched a chatbot in an effort to reduce “summer melt,” which refers to students who accept admission to the institution but don’t show up for fall enrollment. The chatbot’s development took into account data on common obstacles at-risk students face between high school graduation and college enrollment, such as submitting financial aid applications/documents, including immunization records, and completing placement exams. The chatbot, “Pounce,” serves as a 24/7 texting service that leverages this data and provides answers to questions from incoming students on their smart devices. In its first summer of implementation, the service reduced summer melt by 22 percent.

Delaware State University also focuses on individual student retention. They develop individual development plans (IDPs) for each new freshman student, and they redesigned their advising model to monitor and deliver those plans. Prior to the IDPs, delivering consistent advising was a challenge, but now IDPs have been used for three cohorts, ensuring that students receive advising from a common framework. The IDP model also provides leadership with data that proactively measures the system’s success; the data are key in executing the student-success strategy and informing the institution of timely course corrections for students.

In the years since implementing the IDPs in 2015, there have been key organizational and leadership changes at Delaware State University, and the results are unmistakable: historic enrollment, retention, and graduation rates.

What we have learned is that while we have many stakeholders—faculty, staff, funders, alumni, elected officials, and just plain fans—we have only one customer: the students.
Delaware State University

Data can also help sites understand their unique context; Davidson County Community College sees transformation as “large-scale adaptation to student and community needs and economic conditions, based on evidence.” They also point to another key use of data: as a benchmark to measure progress along the journey to fulfilling an ambitious vision.

Jackson State University noted that its “key performance indicator (KPI) targets are a constant reminder of how we want to improve student success at our institution. Knowing there is always room to grow and having a supportive administration are what makes this work possible.”

The Aspen Institute, the intermediary for community colleges, noted that a common theme in sites’ journeys has been putting data at the forefront of difficult conversations, and using it to demonstrate an urgent need for change. Transparency around data creates a new level of clarity and accountability, and helps sites make decisions about what to pursue as well as how to continue to measure the success of their efforts.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College wrote: “Evidence-based decision-making is a standard practice for initiating change and creating a culture of continuous improvement.”

Many Frontier Set sites have found that data play a role as a validator of student-success efforts. Georgia State University found that when they experienced resistance to new initiatives from faculty or leadership, data provided evidence and helped them build consensus and move ideas forward to implement new approaches. That consensus-building work is critical, as the work prompted by data can be difficult; as Miami Dade College noted, it often requires substantial collaboration between academic and student services, as well as professional development for faculty and staff.

After the protocols and systems for gathering and analyzing data are in place, areas of focus have been established, and support has been gathered from around the institution, sites put specific approaches into place to improve student outcomes.


One approach many Frontier Set campuses are taking is engaging faculty in predictive analytics, both within their own courses and by leveraging faculty research skills to support student success institutionwide.
Arizona State’s eAdvisor tool uses data from various academic and co-curricular information systems across campus to generate student and advisor alerts when students may be off track. ASU has also developed an Online Student Success Coaching Center for personalized multi-modality support via 59 coaches dedicated specifically to supporting online students. In addition to the existing academic advisor support for online students, Success Coaches are available as both advisors and coaches to offer success strategies and connect students to the various resources at ASU.

The University of Central Florida launched a pilot cohort of Predictive Analytics Faculty Innovation Fellows, a learning community of six faculty members who worked with institutional data to conduct research on course-taking patterns as well as barriers to and predictors of persistence and completion. Their recommendations are informing program design across campus.

The Tennessee Board of Regents, comprising 13 community colleges, looked at student performance data and found that undecided students were significantly less likely to persist than those with a degree objective. They also looked at student performance by major at each institution, uncovering the critical courses that predict student success in each degree pathway. Collectively this led them to study choice theory and paralysis, and ultimately create a set of eight Academic Foci: meta-majors that guide students toward an area of interest and eventually a major.


San Jacinto Community College found that continuously and intentionally confronting the data at key moments is critical to build and maintain a sense of real urgency on campus. When they realized that students took, on average, 94 semester credit hours to obtain a 60-semester-credit-hour associate’s degree, they dug into why that was. They found that students tended to wander from course to course, and often that wandering was encouraged—without a broader understanding of the excess student-loan debt and the delay in program completion this could cause. Motivated by their realization, San Jacinto implemented a pathways philosophy, and oriented their staff to that new mindset.

Data can show gaps, but also prove and celebrate successes—San Jacinto saw a 48.1 percent increase in the number of degrees and certificates awarded between 2011–2012 and 2015–2016.

Integrating data into the planning cycle of an institution can continually drive innovation and improvements: The discovery of opportunities for improvement spurs initial changes, then data show the success of those changes, which fosters further data analysis and transformation work. American Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the intermediary for urban-serving public and land-grant universities, noted that when data are used as a driver of transformation, the strategy should include both the relevant inputs (like staffing ratios) and outcomes (like retention) to get a clear picture of progress. APLU also noted that data are most useful when contextualized in order to understand when to change—and how to sustain change for real impact.

Data can serve as proof of that sustainment. At Sam Houston State University, data have helped increase the visibility of their student success and Frontier Set initiatives, and they believe it will also play a role in recruiting faculty and staff to work on student-success initiatives.

The Frontier Set sites also use data as a way to quantify their efforts as they share their stories with others. The University System of Georgia, for example, found tremendous value in the data collected by the Tennessee Board of Regents. Analyzing the Tennessee data helped USG review their own data more quickly, which in turned helped them get statewide buy-in to new initiatives. Increasingly specific analyses are helping shape the USG’s plans for the future, and evaluation and reporting on the ongoing efforts is pushing changes in policies, practices, and data communication structures. Additionally, each of the USG institutions submits an annual Campus Plan detailing high-impact, high-priority activities and progress toward student success. Data from those plans is summarized and used for systemwide decision-making.

Frontier Set sites are committed to learning more about their own data and exploring how best to use it—and sharing their findings with others so the group can continue exploring new challenges and approaches.

Data paired with a student-centered mission is a powerful thing, and Santa Fe College noted that it requires "an understanding that data represents the lives of real students, many of whom are struggling amidst tremendous adversity to gain access to educational and economic opportunity."