The Role of Data in COVID-19 Recovery: The Higher Education Perspective

The Role of Data in COVID-19 Recovery: The Higher Education Perspective

This spring’s interrupted learning will affect students in the long term; educators and policymakers are rightfully concerned about how to make up for time lost during school closures. How will school closures influence students’ longer-term outcomes? Will high school graduates who were planning to enroll in college be able to do so and what additional supports might they need to be successful?

With so many questions, DQC once again turned to its bench of experts to explore how data can help leaders answer these questions and best prepare to get students back on track for success. In this blog post, DQC’s Abby Cohen shares insights from her conversation with DQC Board Member José Luis Cruz, executive vice chancellor and university provost of the City University of New York. 

Question #1: With so many questions about how the COVID-19 crisis will affect students’ long-term outcomes, what indicators or types of data should we be looking to?

Cruz: Knowing where students go after high school is important in order to understand what they’ll need in their K–12 experience and what they’ll need as they transition to higher education. Currently, the City University of New York (CUNY) does not collect survey data regarding students’ post-high school choices. That is something CUNY’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment could endeavor to do, asking students about their post-high school plans pre- and post-COVID-19. However, the New York City Department of Education is currently conducting a survey of their high school seniors about their enrollment plans, which is a modified version of their regular senior survey and plans to share results with CUNY.

Question #2: What can institutions of higher education do now to prepare to meet the needs of students who will likely arrive this fall with some gaps in learning? How can data sharing between K–12 and postsecondary systems support this work?

Cruz: The data sharing agreement between CUNY and the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) and related governance structures are among the deepest and most integrated K–12 and higher education collaborations across the country, which have positioned the University well to respond collectively to the pandemic and its impacts on our students.

Throughout the spring, NYC DOE administrators and school counseling staff received detailed, real-time reports on graduating seniors’ admission status to each CUNY campus they had applied to, including proficiency placement determinations. These data reports were further supported by virtual office hours and ongoing regular meetings of CUNY and DOE staff to support all high school college counselors.

This CUNY/NYC DOE data sharing work is governed through a steering committee, which brings together key leaders from across our institutions to monitor work in progress, identify gaps and establish a collaborative agenda. The strong relationships and transparent communication fostered by the steering committee has allowed for clear and consistent communication between leaders throughout the pandemic. For example, DOE leaders on the Multilingual Learners team and the division of Teaching and Learning have been in ongoing discussion with CUNY leadership about the development of remote learning, pedagogical expectations, grading policies and student outcomes for NYC DOE students. As we are all new to remote learning at scale, these conversations ensured that CUNY was developing a clear understanding of what our incoming students had experienced this spring. This knowledge has supported and informed the development of proposals in the Office of Academic Affairs task forces focused on preparing for the fall.

In terms of further preparing for our students’ needs, CUNY will build on a spring 2020 well-being survey (authored by Nick Freudenberg), in which we collected survey data on students’ experience, well-being, and mental health and can monitor their progress. This has long been one of NYC DOE Chancellor Carranza’s top priorities and CUNY had been working on this issue long before the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Question #3: A recent survey found that more than half of students will probably face college affordability issues next year. What is the role of community colleges in addressing this challenge? What about four-year institutions of higher education? How can data support these efforts?

Cruz: CUNY is already among the most affordable higher education institutions. Past experience shows that enrollment at CUNY’s community colleges is negatively correlated with business cycles. So, when the economy was bad, we saw enrollment increases. If students do not mind the distance education modality (and current survey work shows the vast majority are comfortable with online learning), we may expect an increase in enrollment at the CUNY community colleges next year: In a recent technology needs survey of students, 76 percent of respondents were somewhat or very comfortable with online coursework.

Likewise, CUNY’s four-year schools are among the most affordable, especially in terms of opportunity of value. However, when examining cost of higher education, it is important to consider that tuition is just one financial burden students face — there are also living costs that need to be considered. This is something CUNY has learned from analysis of cost of attendance data and from our student experience surveys: most students who work do so to pay living costs.

Question #4: What else is top of mind for you right in terms of how data can inform recovery efforts?

Cruz: CUNY is certainly interested in learning about student and faculty experiences and how we can support them. To that end, we are hosting focus groups starting this week. Separately, Hunter College has conducted a survey of undergraduates and found that students need not just technology, but also appropriate spaces to take online courses, so that is informing how we think about using campus space next year.

The rapid onset of the pandemic, coupled with the emergence of acute and novel student needs, has really underscored the importance of accessible, integrated, actionable data that is of quality. It has helped us to counteract the inequitable impact that the pandemic has had on people of color and low-income households. Ensuring equitable access and outcomes is even more urgent and important than even a few months ago.

Our students are looking to us not just as a University, but as a community, and as a network of supports that can help them weather these difficult times. As a steward of our students and of New York City, we have to be agile, and we can only do that well if we tap into the full potential of the data that we currently have and take bold steps to put in place the structures that will allow us to measure what is most important to us: the health, happiness, and success of our students.