Using Data to Promote Coordinated and Consequential Change in Postsecondary Education

The sustained use of data and performance indicators can play a crucial role in promoting greater degrees of racial equity in postsecondary education. 

Reviewed by Daniel Estupinan


Racial inequity is an emerging concern for many postsecondary institutions around the United States. While students of color have long experienced inequities in higher education, recent highly publicized examples of racism on college campuses have highlighted the need for comprehensive initiatives that improve diversity, inclusion, and equity. Central to these efforts is the appropriate use of data in identifying existing inequities at every phase of a student’s academic journey. The use of data can surface existing inequities that may have long gone unnoticed and create momentum for the institutional change needed to address them. 

Although many universities experience challenges in generating sustainable progress toward equity in outcomes among students of color, there is a clear trend toward institutionalizing the use of standardized performance indicators and metrics. With many universities continuing to struggle to adequately meet the needs of historically marginalized and underrepresented students of color, this paper studies how data can be used to identify and address sources of inequity in higher education. This study focuses on public state university systems that have voluntarily committed to addressing inequities in access and outcomes among students of color enrolled at their institutions. The authors also highlight how one institution used a system of performance accountability to promote data in evaluating existing practices and creating opportunities for incorporating equity into their routine structures. 

These findings were provided by Alicia Dowd, Ph.D., and Román Liera, Ph.D., both of whom have dedicated their careers to studying education policy. For much of her career, Professor Dowd has focused on organizational learning and racial equity in higher education. Dr. Liera’s focus has been on using qualitative methods for studying racial equity in student outcomes and faculty participation. 

Methods and Findings

This research, using a case study method, focused on “Old Main University” (OMU) (a pseudonym), which is a moderately selective state university in a system of fourteen universities. Of the universities’ 15,000 undergraduate students, approximately twenty percent were students of color. Many of those students experienced inequities in outcomes, with six-year graduation rates for Black and Latinx students between 15 and 23 percentage points lower than white students. These inequities were a primary motivating factor in the system’s adoption of a voluntary performance accountability initiative and its participation in Access to Success, a project of the National Association of System Heads and the Education Trust to increase educational attainment among historically underrepresented students. 

In its implementation of the Access to Success initiative, the university system created an Equity Scorecard Evidence team tasked with analyzing institutional student performance data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. Upon completing this initial analysis, the team then developed strategies for institutionalizing equity standards, particularly in student retention and graduation. This included modifications to the curriculum, which was cited as a critical area for sustained faculty involvement. After these initial steps, several team members were interviewed, each of whom were asked to reflect on how they used data in their routine work and how they perceived their experiences in the team meetings. Follow-up interviews later took place to identify whether the group’s recommendations had been implemented. 

Overall, there were various examples of success in the university system’s pursuit of more significant equity in access and outcomes among students of color. In light of its data collection, the university identified disparities in Black students’ acceptance rates, which led to a reevaluation of the universities’ admissions policies and practices. Discrepancies were also identified in graduation and retention rates, where outcomes among students of color were trailing those of white students. This finding led to identifying the “undeclared” major as a primary source of these inequities. Several university officials began working toward expanding access to selective majors and enhancing the availability of resources for students with undeclared majors.


The findings presented in the article provide insight into the challenges that change agents may experience when attempting to promote new practices in their higher education institutions. While arguably well-intentioned, these attempts have the potential to generate conflict that frequently derails their impact. Initiatives to advance racial equity must be structured to be sustainable, coordinated, and incrementally implemented throughout the university. At the same time, change agents must anticipate staff turnover and fluctuations in resources that may slow or disrupt progress toward achieving reforms. 

Data must play a central role in fostering positive change towards achieving more significant degrees of racial equity. However, simply providing data to decision-makers does little to promote data-driven decisions. Instead, institutions must use data as a tool in fostering discussions of how existing policies perpetuate racial inequities while promoting sustained evaluations of new potential areas where they may exist. Those evaluations may then lay the groundwork for creating customized professional development programs that reinforce the use of data and performance indicators. In doing so, universities can lay the groundwork for creating institutions that are genuinely responsive to marginalized students’ unique needs. 

Thank you for visiting RRAPP

Please help us improve the site by answering three short questions.