Leading with Data

Between the years of 2013 and 2017, Southern Crescent Technical College (SCTC) faced a spiraling enrollment decline from a high of 7,871 in 2013 to a low of 6,527 in 2017. In just the two-year period between 2013 and 2015, enrollment dropped over 1,137 students. In addition to the enrollment decline, the college did not meet other performance goals including retention and graduation. College leadership identified the need for immediate and effective intervention, but most efforts to address enrollment and performance were unsuccessful. Between 2015 and 2016, the college implemented staff development sessions designed to develop strategies to promote student success and address enrollment and retention deficiencies. Additionally, there was a renewed focus on first-year advisement and support. While the enrollment decline slowed down, the college still did not see a significant improvement in enrollment, retention, or graduation. However, in early 2017, the focus shifted. The senior leadership team comprised of the president and divisional vice-presidents were challenged to begin taking an intentional look at data. As Jim Bergeson said, “Data will talk to you, if you’re willing to listen to it” (as cited in Gupta & Giri, 2018). Encouraged to “listen to the data” and move beyond a mere review of the data, the senior leadership team began to implement in-depth data analysis into decision-making processes.

As the senior leadership team spent more time analyzing the college’s data, an agreed upon definition of student success emerged. Senior leadership also embraced the idea that key performance indicators (KPIs), or benchmarks, are a measure of institutional success. Most importantly, they came to understand that institutional success is student success. Therefore, if the college wanted to move the needle of student success, they had to focus their efforts on achieving KPIs.

In listening to the data, several ideas emerged. First, it became apparent that leadership matters. Second, the use of constant and consistent messaging was critical. Third, it was imperative that data discussions extend throughout the college. Fourth, it was apparent that accountability creates ownership and buy-in for outcomes. Finally, decision makers should be looking at data to determine what leading indicators directly influence the lagging indicators (KPIs). This paper provides a discussion of how leadership and data analysis helped the senior leadership of SCTC influence lagging indicators and create a data-informed culture.


The first step in building a data-informed culture focused on leadership. Northouse (2016) described transformational leadership as “the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower” (p. 162). The implementation of a framework like the one described by Leithwood, Begley, and Cousins (1994) is one method in which leaders in higher education can lead to institutional transformations. The framework describes seven dimensions of a transformational leader: establishing a school vision and strategic goals; developing a culture of productivity; promoting intellectual stimulation; offering customized support to individual students; acting as a model for the organization's values; establishing high expectations for employee and student performance; and encouraging participation in school decisions (Leithwood et al., 1994). Successful institutional transformations, however, do not occur in a vacuum; they require leaders empowered to make effective decisions supported by data and followers who are inspired to implement their vision.

The senior leadership team recognized the importance of developing a culture that fosters collaboration across departments and divisions at the college. Broad-based collaboration created a path for a narrowed and concentrated focus on the institutional decision-making process. Organizational culture is defined as “the formal environment and norms that characterize a specific organization, as well as its informal behavior and the social phenomena that occur among individuals in an organization” (Mercadal, 2018, para. 1). There are fundamental values and methods of interacting in every organization that contribute to the environment of that organization. Those interactions or relationships are vital to the college's success, because they promote regular communication amongst personnel charged with advancing the college’s mission.

As the senior leadership team clarified the values of the college and began to set the example, the president created and shared an inspired vision. Under the umbrella of student success, the vision was for the college to meet its benchmarks in enrollment, retention, and graduation. In addition, the vision included the use of data to make improvements and decisions to meet those benchmarks and impact student success. The senior leadership team articulated that vision to their divisions, which the college embraced. At every opportunity, the senior leadership team discussed the data and the importance of making data-informed decisions. Weekly senior leadership meetings provided a platform for the president to reiterate the vision for the college, set and adjust priorities, hold the vice presidents accountable for institutional and student success initiatives, articulate expectations, and celebrate accomplishments. The vice presidents provided status reports and strategized ways to exceed system benchmark goals.

A downward and upward communication flow was critical to attaining institutional goals, which the college equated to student success. The vice presidents disseminated pertinent information to direct reports who in turn passed updates to their subordinates. Weekly combined meetings with deans and directors drastically improved communication between departments and divisions. Town Hall meetings and an electronic college news page also helped create a collaborative college community.

Data Analysis

Phillips and Horowitz (2017) stated, “Effective data use starts with reframing analytics to make them useful, useable, and actionable, along with an understanding of the research on how we as human beings engage with data to improve decision making and how we can change organizational habits to improve the use of data in the service to students” (p. 9). SCTC, one of the twenty-two technical colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), has established KPIs that, like many other colleges and universities, are output-oriented. Lagging indicators are usually output-oriented and follow an event. According to (Huether, 2018), “the importance of a lagging indicator is its ability to confirm that a pattern is occurring" (para. 3).

In order to influence change, senior leadership began to focus on leading indicators, which are predictive by nature, and by aligning actionable leading indicators to influence results: "Monitoring leading indicators provides a window of opportunity to act" (Phillips & Horowitz, 2017, p. 73). By following the trends of leading indicators, the college has seen significant changes in its enrollment, retention, and graduation KPIs. From 2013 to 2016, the college experienced a -16.4% change in enrollment. Table 1 shows the college’s annual enrollment from its highest in 2013 through 2018.

In order to address the enrollment decline and in an effort to create a culture of data awareness, the senior leadership team decided to highlight enrollment data and make it a priority across the institution. This shift resulted in employee buy in and brought new conversations and ideas to the forefront. The college quickly saw the need to increase course offerings and improve recruitment efforts. The recruitment office was reorganized to work more effectively. Academic Affairs and Student Affairs began working more closely together in weekly joint deans and director meetings. As the college started to see improvements, there was a renewed excitement among faculty and staff. The college continued to take a deeper dive into the enrollment data. As a result, the college learned that dual enrollment had outpaced traditional enrollment. Moving forward, the college is developing strategies for improvement in traditional enrollment. One strategy is to expand evening course offerings. The goal is to attract adult learners by offering programs at more convenient times.

In reviewing retention, the college identified its retention cohort and began to track these students. The college also created its Career and Academic Planning (CAP) Center to help students identify a program of study with career goals in mind. The college has also incorporated intrusive advising. Also, faculty are reaching out to students in order to persuade them to stay the course. Continued work on retention has resulted in greater utilization of an early alert system designed to identify students who may be at risk of academic difficulty or failure. Faculty members make referrals by completing an early alert electronic notification. The system provides feedback from instructors and counselors to help students identify and utilize student support services. Table 2 shows retention rates with 2015 being the lowest at 60.7%.

The college also began to explore ways to improve its graduation rates. TCSG defines graduation rate as graduates and leavers tracked over two years: Total Unduplicated Graduates / (Unduplicated Graduates + Unduplicated Non-Graduate Leavers). In an effort to improve the graduation rate, the college began to connect embedded credentials within its programs to create pathways within existing programs of study to provide students more opportunities to reach their educational goals and allow for exit points leading to employment at a living wage. The college has also utilized Degree Works to establish individual educational plans and highlight pathways for students. Table 3 shows the college graduation rates with 2014 being the lowest at 50.9%.