Data in Higher Education Series | Episode 15 - Part II

Giving Data Definition, Part II – Perspective on Co-Curricular Engagement

Published March 09, 2020

Understanding and assessing student involvement data comes from both quality and quantity of co-curriculars on campus. But there isn’t one standard definition of involvement that works for every campus. Hear Kelli Rainey, Ph.D. and Moira Phippen discuss ways you can better understand what involvement means for you through the unique perspective of Columbus State Community College, a two-year community college member campus.


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Show notes:

From our conversation with Mya Pollard, Director of Student Engagement and Leadership at Columbus State Community College

How are you assessing co-curricular student engagement?

We’ve been looking at what engagement means for our students and how we can service those students across the various different pathways, needs and locations we have here. Even though we’ve historically had lots of opportunities for students to connect, whether it be through events or activities, we’ve discovered many weren’t participating. We also began looking at quality versus quantity: what are we doing, why are we doing it, what types of students do we impact, what is the outcome—not only for their time here but for after they leave. We try and figure out who is getting engaged and what makes them enjoy it.

We discovered our second-year students were engaging much more than our first-years and that created a challenge because we obviously want to engage with students throughout their entire tenure here. Of the second-year students that were engaging, they commented that their lack of earlier engagement was because they didn’t know where to start and didn’t see any messaging around why they should get engaged.

What made you interested in defining and assessing engagement at your institution?

We had lots of students benefiting greatly from our work, but there was also a large gap. So, we looked to our student ambassadors. When interviewing for these positions we ask students why they want to get involved and—I kid you not—nine times out of 10 it’s because they wish they had someone like this when they were on campus. It really opened an opportunity and an interest to make these co-curriculars more available to the larger population on campus. That led us to start figuring out who we are serving, who we aren’t serving and how do we define engagement in our population.

I love the idea of ‘Who we are serving, who we aren’t serving’ and that you’ve expanded it from a checklist to a more complex analysis. When you’re thinking about how to define engagement, what sort of definitions are you using today?

A personal foundation of mine comes from my graduate program. I had an instructor state there are institutions for students who know they can be successful and institutions for students who discover they can be successful. That always stuck in the back of my mind. As we look at the quantity versus quality issue, we’re also looking at the opportunities we’re offering for students to discover their own success and how we can marry that with the outcomes of our institution.

With that at the heart of what we’re hoping to offer students and with the help of Campus Labs and the Connect conference, we’ve defined co-curricular engagement as opportunities for students to connect both inside and outside the classroom.

Are there any specific metrics you’re looking at?

Absolutely. Like other institutions, we look to see how these opportunities align with retention, our students’ progress from semester to semester or year to year, but also how these opportunities are helping our students get to the finish line. Our long-time outlook is to determine how participation in these different co-curricular initiatives is impacting their long-term success. I would love to be able to look at how many students go on to complete their bachelor’s or graduate programs, how many go into careers of their choosing or how many are getting leadership opportunities. We also have many international or first-gen students and I would love to see how they are developing in those areas, as well.

You’ve highlighted some already, but are there other particular challenges in these areas as a two-year institution versus a four-year institution?

There are lots! For example:

  • Having fully commuter students
  • An older student base, on average
  • Large high-school populations with dual-enrolled courses
  • Having part-time students who average 20 or more working hours a week

Our challenge is to create opportunities for everyone but there can also be external factors. When you look at best practice institutions or resources, they are oftentimes geared towards four-year institutions, so it might not always translate into our immediate needs.

Another unique aspect of two-year institutions is the focus on career placement and workforce development. The challenge is looking at how we use our opportunities for students to gain knowledge but understand how their experiences will help them transition into the workforce. We try to line up programs that will create tangible skills for students to take into the future.

Have you noticed any major ways that those different demographics show a set pattern of engagement or involvement?

When we first started digging into who our students were, we noticed it was a high percentage of second-year students. This past year I am proud to say that we pulled our data and discovered we’re about an even split of students from first and second year. Most of our students are looking for very specific types of engagement, the top five being:

  • Student groups
  • Leadership opportunities
  • Social events
  • Community service
  • Family events

We have a large population of student parents, so it’s important for us to meet students where they are. How can we design programs that invite families to be connected? How can we invite parents to get connected on campus but also make it safe and accessible for their children, as well?

Thinking about other institutions with unique populations, what first steps would you recommend to them when embarking on a similar path as you?

The number one piece of advice is to just start. Listen to your students and look at your data—it’s easy to gather ideas and have goals, but if you don’t keep your students at the center of what you’re doing you will lose out. As I mentioned earlier, lots of our strategies were quantified in the variety of events, but because we didn’t involve the students quickly enough, we were misusing our time. It’s good to know there is power in your students: listen to their voices and just start. Start small but dream big—always remembering what is unique to your institution.

Key Takeaways from this series

  • When you’re able to think critically about what the data means in the context of where it’s coming from: data is exciting. It helps you unlock the mysteries about your institution, but it also brings up new and exciting questions that can positively impact your methods and strategies moving forward.
  • Take a moment to reflect on what you already know. Regardless of when you start the work or how far along you already are, you can take a moment to reflect on how you organize your efforts and use that information to guide what you do.
  • This really is a campus conversation that ties nicely into all missions and should be shared across the entire institution.

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