You don’t have to be Jeff Bezos to know that understanding data is key to any modern-day, large-scale operation. Identifying trends, opportunities and threats in the numbers allows businesses to scale up their strengths and minimize weaknesses.
The same is true for a place like FIU, where the studying of patterns provides insights that the university can use to better itself. Analysis and Information Management (AIM) is dedicated to this pursuit, and they are laser-focused on improving one metric in particular: student graduation rate.
Since 2000, FIU’s student graduation rate has improved by 24 percent. To keep that number increasing, AIM has an office that is collaborating with colleges and departments across the university to analyze data and make informed suggestions that will help more Panthers earn degrees.
“What we do is focus on conducting in-depth analysis of our data in order to identify roadblocks that departments might not necessarily be able to deal with. A lot of colleges here are like mini universities. Many of them don’t have the infrastructure necessary to assess interventions that they have implemented,” says Lilia Minaya '05 MSF ’08 Ph.D. ’20, who was hired as director of the Office of Retention and Graduation Success (ORGS) with AIM last year.
This office pours through information to tell stories about student success that might otherwise go unheard. This is important because students' challenges are not always what they seem.
For years, ORGS has been working with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching to identify classes in which a student’s success has a powerful impact upon whether or not they graduate. In the beginning, these "gateway courses" were assumed to be located mainly in the math curriculum, according to AIM Associate Vice President Hiselgis Perez MS ’98 Ph.D. ’00. But the data pointed to another subject as well.
“One of these gateway courses was ENC 1101. If you’re not passing basic English, you are at higher risk of not graduating. It seems like a no-brainer looking at it in the past. But everyone focuses on math preparedness and that type of stuff. So while there are few students that don’t do well in that English course, the ones that do fail have a very high chance of dropping out of the university and not graduating,” Perez says.
ORGS is digging into case studies like this all across the student body.
Years ago, the university implemented a policy that allows freshmen to take a No Credit (N/C) grade instead of having a D or an F. This was done to encourage freshmen to stay enrolled, as one poor mark can drastically alter a new student’s GPA and might discourage them from staying in school.
To measure whether or not this policy is working as intended, ORGS is conducting a study with Academic and Career Success.
“If it only had a positive impact, then we will be good. But we won’t really know that unless someone sits down with the data, analyzes it and can present it so that we can have a university-wide conversation. We can say, ‘Hey, now that this has been in place for a number of years, let’s take a look and make sure it is doing what we want it to do.’ Students taking excess hours is a possible negative impact. We are looking at it,” Associate Provost of Academic and Career Success Valerie Johnsen says.
While studying the past, ORGS is also looking toward the future. There are things that affect graduation rates that FIU has yet to fully measure and analyze, Minaya says, such as student participation in wider university life.
“Engagement matters. It has been shown that if you participate in on-campus activities, you perform better. Our team will expand current efforts to utilize data to measure the impact of student engagement at FIU," Minaya says.
ORGS is also conducting qualitative studies to improve Panther graduation rates.
For example, the office is helping advisors at FIU see if they are receiving the feedback they need from their students. A possible concern is that students know their advisors are reading their feedback, which could cause a student to hesitate in giving a 100-percent-honest assessment. To test this hypothesis, ORGS is distributing surveys of their own with a plan to compare the two types of responses.
“Some gaps can only be filled in by connecting with human beings, rather than by acquiring big data,” Perez says.
In her first year as director, Minaya hopes that ORGS can connect with more people across the university to find solutions that boost student success.
“When this position came up, it truly was like a dream come true. It still is," says Minaya, who received her Ph.D. in public affairs from FIU. Her dissertation examines the impact of performance-based funding policies on student success. "I am hoping to help every student at our FIU just by establishing data-informed processes and policies while removing roadblocks to achieve transformative changes that will yield excellent results."