Male graduate in a cap and gown - symbolizing student success

Tell your student success story

It’s easier said than done. College and university leaders want (and need) to piece together data into an understandable narrative. It’s important to be able to tell your institution’s student success story in a way that grabs the listener’s attention. But while that sounds simple, it is often anything but.  

Pair of eyeglasses resting on an open book. How can we tell our student success story better?

In striving to tell a better data story, sometimes it helps to look at an institution that does student success story-telling well. Why reinvent the wheel, right?   

At IEHE, we love to share our own expertise, but we also are committed to finding and sharing the sage advice of others on issues related to data. So many institutions are trying desperately to answer the question “Why is my student success story misunderstood?” Here, we’ve included our thoughts on this topic, and invited colleagues and data experts to share their own. 

Simplification Translator 

Every industry has their own nomenclature. Higher ed is no different. Have you ever started talking “higher ed speak” to someone who doesn’t live and breathe higher ed? You quickly realize that the person has only caught every fifth word or so. Simplifying the student success story is critical. It is a bit like speaking another language. Some people can easily go from “speaking” one language to another. Others need a translator at their institution who does it more easily. It is important to engage the folks at your campus who are good at taking complex information and simplifying it.  

There are Many Paths to Success 

Eric Atchison, the Vice President for Strategic Research at the Arkansas State University System, took a few moments to speak with IEHE about this topic. Eric says, “It is important to understand and be able to articulate the non-linear paths that students take.” For example, some students may begin as degree-seeking, switch to a certificate, then move to non-continuing education. There are good reasons for this. But people outside of your institution may not be aware of the non-linear paths. If they don’t understand how this impacts your data, they can completely miss the successes you are having with students.  

Deborah Lee, Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Concordia University – Irvine, emphasized the importance of connecting data with mission. “At this point, most institutions are data rich and information poor. Therefore, it is important to look at data in the context of the mission”, says Deborah. For example, focus on the goals the college or university is trying to accomplish, then use the available data to help direct those efforts. “We [data users] can slice and dice, but it doesn’t paint the picture unless we are analyzing data in a purposeful, rather than exploratory, way.”  

Male college graduate in regalia raising his cap. That's a real student success story!

Make it Relevant 

Another important component of data storytelling is translating back to something the audience can relate to. Of course, this requires careful consideration of your audience. Let’s say that your are preparing a report for an accreditation reviewer. Putting the data into a familiar context – like using IPEDS data – might be your best strategy. In contrast, when talking with parents, tying your data to the narrative of a specific hypothetical student will likely be more successful. Having good data and insight won’t be enough if it isn’t relevant to the audience you’re trying to communicate with.

Have you found any surprisingly successful techniques for telling your student success stories? Let us know in the comments. If you’re looking for new ideas or more support to help tell your student success stories, IEHE can help. Get in touch!

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.