How Can We Free the Data to Support Community College Improvement?

California built a system and supported its use at the college and program level.
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Aug. 17, 2022

When Van Ton-Quinlivan started at the California Community College Chancellor's office in July of 2011, she quickly received an earnest request from a college administrator to “free the data.” When she looked into what that meant, she found that “local data was being uploaded into the state repository, captured – or ‘locked’– into a cycle of compliance reporting but offered little added value back to the colleges.”

This discovery and the belief that we value what we measure led her to assemble a team to create LaunchBoard, a statewide data system that provides information about progress, success, employment, and earnings outcomes for California community college students.

Developing and deploying the tool was slow going. The 115-strong community college system is one of the largest in the country. Faculty and staff had questions.

Concerns about data quality, collecting and using metrics at the right levels of the decision-making process, and the capacity for colleges to use the data surfaced in numerous conversations. Over years of technical assistance and small grants to colleges, LaunchBoard was able to make inroads. By 2017, the system's new Guided Pathways Initiative used Launchboard as its dashboard foundation.

The word “launch” in LaunchBoard indicates that the data should be used to start conversations rather than be an end unto itself.

The San Diego and Imperial counties region is making that idea a reality. In 2016, California created the Strong Workforce Program, a yearly investment of $248 million in career technical education. Funding went to regions and college districts. Both the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Regional Consortium and districts in the consortium are using LaunchBoard to track and report outcome metrics for programs supported by Strong Workforce. "Using LaunchBoard data, we were able to identify and reach out to colleges making improvements in their Strong Workforce metrics,” shared Danene Brown, regional chair of San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Regional Consortium, “We learned what the colleges were doing and shared these best practices with our regional colleges."

Colleges and districts are also using LaunchBoard to allocate money from Perkins and Strong Workforce to new and existing programs. At Miracosta College, they redesigned the application for funds to include data from LaunchBoard such as baseline expectations for enrollment, completion and expected employment and wage outcomes for new programs. MiraCosta also repackages the data to inform conversations with their employer advisory committees.

The regional consortium also leveraged LaunchBoard to advance racial and gender equity by conducting a systematic review of student outcomes by race, ethnicity, and gender. They found that Black students lagged behind in graduation, job, and wage outcomes–they did find one surprise. Black students reached outcome parity in one sector: energy and construction. With that insight, the consortium launched a study to assess and scale effective practices to other programs in the region. The study included focus groups and surveys of Black students who helped identify ways to build community and a deeper sense of belonging in the classroom for more students of color.

As a part of our overall regional effort, we are “using those results as a part of our regional planning and funding decisions to help colleges make sure practices that can support Black students' success are being implemented,” shared Benjamin Gamboa, associate dean of career education at MiraCosta College.

States, systems, and colleges seeking to leverage data to drive quality workforce outcomes should:

  1. Make the data useful & train people on how to use it. It took at least two iterations of LaunchBoard to create flexibility in the data for different audiences and uses. Those conversations took a very long time and they are still not over. LaunchBoard continues to be refined and customized for different projects and groups. But the current structure serves as a good foundation for those new uses. The Community College Chancellor's office also provided small $50,000 grants and technical assistance to help leaders on campus understand how to use the tool to achieve their goals.
  2. Ensure data integrity. Early versions of LaunchBoard had data that was just plain wrong. When the team investigated why they found problems with the class coding structure and data entry process. The team had to address those challenges to make the tool useful. Grants to colleges helped clean and improve the quality of the data in collaboration with the system office. If people can not trust the data is correct, no one will use it.
  3. Have conversations with faculty and staff about their data. Even after the data is verified, many faculty are shocked at the outcomes they see for their students. In many cases, these outcomes go against what the faculty “know” from anecdotal experience. The LaunchBord team had countless conversations on this topic and staff at the college level continue to have these conversations. Associate Dean Gamboa says it helps to clarify the data is “not evaluative of you and your value or your students values or the potential for their outcomes.” Instead, he frames it as a place to start having more nuanced conversations with the program industry partners about wages, work-based learning, and sub-occupations that may pay more.
  4. Provide funding. All this work was possible in California because they braided evaluation requirements for grant funds to LaunchBoard. They used small grants as carrots to support implementation across the system. At the same time, creating a large new grant program like Strong Workforce that was based on metrics provided through LaunchBoard made using the platform even more important. At the regional and college level, the continued support to use this data comes from using it to allocate Strong Workforce funding to programs.

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Higher Education Data and Transparency