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Groundbreaking Data Tool Helps Higher Education Institutions Plan for a Student-Centric Future

Across the U.S., higher education institutions are grappling with unprecedented forces, including demographic shifts, market disruptions, and sustained enrollment declines. The COVID-19 pandemic intensified these trends and emphasized how outcomes and resources in higher education are uneven and can often exacerbate historical inequities for many students and communities.

Amid these monumental challenges, higher education leaders have an opportunity to build more resilient and equitable systems in which all students, regardless of their backgrounds, can achieve their definition of success. The students of tomorrow will be different than the students of the past. Higher education leaders cannot rely on the same recruitment and retention strategies if they are to remain viable in the changing national landscape. They must know how to prioritize and understand diverse student populations — what they value and what they need to succeed.

The Sorenson Impact Center’s MAPS Project, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to provide leaders of higher education with the insights they need to prepare for the changing landscape. MAPS — which stands for Model, Analyze, Prototype, and Share — uses student-centric, data-driven research to chart the rapidly evolving system to help higher education institutions equitably transform and improve outcomes for all students.

The project features a suite of innovative data tools that provide higher education leaders a new way to visualize their institution’s performance, gain visibility into peer institutions’ strategies, and understand outcomes within the context of national trends impacting the industry. The most recent addition is the Student Trends and Enrollment Projections (STEP) Dashboard, a powerful tool designed to help higher education leaders gain foresight into upcoming enrollment, population, and demand shifts that could impact their institutions and students. Featuring trends and projections on the relationship between population and enrollment, plus data on student flow across states and online learning, the dashboard provides actionable insights into where undergraduate students are choosing to attend college, how that has changed over time, and what enrollment could look like in the future.

Here, Megan Brewster, Sorenson Impact Center Director, shares how the STEP Dashboard can help leaders at higher education institutions identify opportunities to support the diverse students of tomorrow so that both students and the higher education sector can thrive.

What issues does the STEP Dashboard address?
The STEP Dashboard provides insights regarding several current challenges and opportunities that higher education leaders are facing. The first is enrollment challenges, a combination of the coming “demographic cliff” where the amount of high school graduates available to enroll in college is projected to decline starting in 2025, plus the trend we are seeing where a lower proportion of high school graduates are enrolling in college overall and the impact of COVID-19.

Another major issue it addresses is student preferences and the return on investment for students. Students want to know that they can succeed through college and reap benefits post-graduation, and they want their institutions to support them along the way. This means ensuring their basic needs are met, providing opportunities for work-based learning, minimizing debt and financial challenges, and creating a sense of belonging. We know that the schools that serve an increasingly diverse student population well will be the ones that thrive in the future.

The STEP Dashboard visualizes key data insights that speak to these opportunities, including enrollment and population trends, how students flow across states in pursuing higher education, and the role of online-only education.

How does the STEP Dashboard work?
The STEP Dashboard visualizes the relationship between population data, enrollment data, and the potential impacts of trends like distance learning. It displays historical enrollment and population trends and future projections, as well as trends in student migration flow and remote learning. The dashboard allows users to focus on data by state level with additional filters for institution type and demographic parameters such as student race and gender to understand potential areas of opportunity. The dashboard utilizes data from College Scorecard, the U.S. Census, and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

How can leaders at higher education institutions use this information?
The tool allows leaders to generate visualized data insights that are specific to the context of their institution. It provides insight into future student demographics and enrollment patterns, answering questions about which student demographics might enroll more than others, what student groups are growing in population but not enrolling, and where students from specific locations are pursuing postsecondary education. The tool can uncover where there is a strong population of potential students that are not enrolling.

These actionable insights can help inform recruitment efforts, strategic planning, resource allocation, community engagement, and innovative investment opportunities. The STEP Dashboard is particularly valuable for institutions struggling to maintain enrollment rates, which is a growing challenge for colleges and universities throughout the country. Leaders can identify opportunities to attract and authentically support the diverse students of tomorrow so that both students and institutions can thrive in the future.

How does the STEP Dashboard complement the other dashboards built through the MAPS project?
The STEP Dashboard shows higher education leaders who their current students are and where their future students may come from. It works in tandem with the Institutional Equity Outcomes Dashboard, which can help leaders understand how they are currently serving different student demographics, and the Financial Health Dashboard, which can help them understand their financial position and ability to better invest in student success relative to other institutions.

All three are sector-specific since we know higher education is diverse in terms of types of institutions and funding needs as well as in terms of student demographics and needs. All of them have a national reach, so leaders can understand how their data fits into the larger ecosystem.

Interested in learning more about how the MAPS Project can support your higher education needs? Let us know what challenges your organization faces, and someone from our team will be in touch.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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