Advancing student success through better data analysis

Des Moines Area Community College uses analytics and data visualization to help students prosper in the classroom and beyond

Educational institutions are treasure troves of valuable data. But when that data is spread across different schools, departments and campuses in various formats and systems, it becomes a huge challenge to aggregate, connect and distribute data to those who need it. That was the predicament that Joe DeHart set out to amend at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). As the Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness, DeHart championed using analytics to help the school unearth and analyze data to proactively help students succeed.

SAS provides an overall snapshot of the health of our institution, and insight into how programs, processes and systems within DMACC impact our students.
Joe DeHart

Joe DeHart
Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness, Assistant to the President

DeHart, who is also assistant to the DMACC president, is responsible for making sure staff members gain the insights they need to make the right choices about how the college serves its students. DMACC is using analytics and data visualization from SAS to access, integrate and manage data to help improve student enrollment, retention and graduation rates. With SAS data management and reporting capabilities, administrators and educators throughout DMACC can use data to identify at-risk students and help students select the right coursework.

“Now staff members throughout the college can access data,” DeHart says. “They don't have to go through my department, so it extends our reach.” Reports that used to take weeks and months are now completed in minutes or seconds. This has freed DeHart's team to explore data in more detail.

Getting students on the right track

A foundational element to student success is being able to place students into courses that are suitable for their cognitive and affective development. Traditionally, DMACC – like many colleges – relied on ACT and entrance exams to place students into regular or developmental courses. But as national research began to question that wisdom, DeHart wanted to study DMACC’s own data. He quickly discovered that the entrance tests had very little correlation to student performance.

Administrators already knew that tracking students into developmental courses often caused them to drop out, but they were hesitant to reduce the role of entrance exam scores in guiding students. “Development classes are the kiss of death. Students are paying full tuition but not getting any college credit, so they often give up,” DeHart explains. Today, DMACC offers a college readiness class and counseling to prepare future students for full admission the next semester. DMACC also uses inexpensive online refresher classes for students with low English or math placement test scores, instead of requiring semester-long, no-credit developmental classes.

DMACC also began using predictive modeling to supplement placement test scores with additional student data aimed at incorporating affective elements, like planning ahead and registering early, attending student orientation and meeting with an advisor. As first-time college students go through the application, admission and registration processes, DMACC gathers additional information about each student, like their intentions upon entering college, parental college experience, veteran status and socioeconomic factors associated with their zip codes. The college can use this data to improve the predictive ability of placement test scores. DMACC has even more data on returning students, including past academic performance.

The journey to an analytics culture; preparing students for the future

“SAS has become the linchpin to all that marries what we keep internally with what we're looking at externally – whether that's benchmark data, unemployment insurance data or national student clearinghouse data,” DeHart says. “And the nice thing is that I don't have to worry about the data being accurate. With SAS, I know all the fields are correct, and that the users can interact with the data, and it's always going to be correct.” That’s a tremendous benefit for DeHart’s team and others at DMACC. “Before, we had a lot of interpretative data in which someone would run a manual process but not be able to repeat it the next semester because they forgot how they did it.”

“We have a ton of data that gets captured on students, their progress, when they come in and when they go out,” DeHart explains. “SAS provides an overall snapshot of the health of our institution, and insight into how programs, processes and systems within DMACC impact our students.”

DeHart and his team have built a culture of using SAS for data-informed decision making. It even extends to following up with graduates to see how they're doing in the “real world,” like whether they moved on to a four-year college, embarked on a career, etc. DMACC compares their status to the course loads they took at the college to build a model of what makes for a successful student. This approach enables DMACC to help current and future students on their journeys to college degrees and promising futures.

“The good thing,” says DeHart, “is that as we continue to evolve, learn and question, SAS is there to help us.”

Des Moines Area Community College 50 Years


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Administrators and educators throughout the college can easily and securely access data and reports, which frees the Institutional Effectiveness staff to mine data in more detail and proactively help students succeed.

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