Expanding Student Data-Collection Efforts Can Help Create a More Equitable Campus

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Data collection is an important tool for progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in higher education, but often that data is incomplete, preventing institutions from understanding the actual student experience for huge portions of their campus populations. 

Colleges and universities that receive federal funding through Title IV are required to collect data on students’ race, ethnicity, and gender. However, schools are not mandated to gather information on other important aspects of a student’s identity — such as whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or are a student-parent. 

Nicole Lynn Lewis
Nicole Lynn Lewis

“What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get prioritized,” says Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that supports the academic success of student-parents.

Respect and Transparency Are Key Factors

Schools confront several obstacles when considering expanding their data-collection efforts — including how to be respectful of students’ privacy.

Institutions should explain from the start why certain data is being collected, Lewis says. Students should also be assured that their information will remain anonymous and not be shared publicly. And most importantly, colleges should be prepared to act on the data they gather and let students know exactly how their information will be used to provide tangible improvements to the student experience.

“Embracing the fact that this data comes with a call to action is also something that institutions have to be ready for,” Lewis says.

Irenee Beattie
Irenee Beattie

Irenee Beattie, PhD, an associate professor of sociology who studies student experiences and outcomes at the University of California (UC), Merced, agrees that the most vital takeaway for any university interested in expanding its data-collection efforts is to view it as a tool for improving its DEI strategies — and that just gathering the data itself is not enough to change campus culture.

“All campuses say that they aim to address inequalities and be engines of social mobility and all of those things,” she says. “But [data] is a tool in their arsenal that they’re not really using to the degree that they should.” 

If universities are better informed about the specific demographics of their campuses — such as how many students are parents or identify as LGBTQ+ — they can create more effective policies and provide tangible benefits for students, the two experts say.

Lack of Data on Student-Parents Can Result in Unwelcoming Policies

Lewis, who obtained an undergraduate degree from William & Mary as a single mother, knows firsthand what it feels like to be a struggling student-parent without knowledge of or access to institutional support. Compounding the problem, Lewis says, many schools have policies that can make parents feel unwelcome — such as bans on children in campus spaces.

“I was maneuvering through a system that wasn’t designed for me,” she says. “I felt very much like I was alone in that experience. There was very little recognition that there were others like me, or that there needed to be any sort of concerted effort to include students like me.”

Lewis launched Generation Hope in 2010 to spur colleges and universities to prioritize the needs of student-parents — which often begins with raising awareness of just how large this population is. More than one-fifth of all college students, or approximately 4 million, are student-parents, according to estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics.

An analysis of national student data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that nearly 70 percent of student-parents are mothers and 30 percent are fathers.

Generation Hope offers a technical assistance program to help institutions implement data-collection practices that give them a better picture of how many student-parents they have on their campuses. This information can often be illuminating, Lewis says, and can lead to changes in policies and practices, such as lifting bans on children visiting campus and adding more diaper changing stations and lactation spaces.

In addition, Lewis believes addressing this group should be a key consideration in a university’s DEI strategy because a large portion of student-parents are people of color. The IWPR report shows that student-parents are more likely to be from underrepresented groups than students without children — 51 percent compared with 46 percent, respectively. Black college students are the most likely of all demographics to be student-parents, followed by American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students.

“There’s an opportunity here for institutions, as they’re collecting data on students, to be able to have a fuller picture of the initiatives that need to be put into action when it comes to their DEI work,” Lewis says. 

For example, it may not be enough for a university to launch an initiative to support underrepresented students struggling with food insecurity if that program does not also consider that they may have children at home who are also affected by hunger, she says.

Lewis recommends that schools look at the systems they already have in place for collecting data, such as Free Application for Federal Student Aid submissions, and see what can be improved and expanded to better collect information about student-parent needs. 

LGBTQ+ Student Data Helps Create an Inclusive Environment

As with student-parents, colleges and universities are not federally required to collect data on LGBTQ+ students. This lack of information presents several problems when it comes to fully understanding the student experience, says Beattie at UC Merced.

On an institutional level, Beattie says, this lack of information can mean that when schools analyze data on their underrepresented campus populations, they may not be able to discern how variations in student identities can affect their ability to achieve academic success.

After the UC system announced in 2015 that it would begin collecting LGBTQ+ student data as part of the admissions process, Beattie and several of her colleagues seized the opportunity to study the information. Using data from approximately 25,000 students across three of the system’s campuses, they are currently exploring how students’ LGBTQ+ identities intersect with race, gender, and class. 

The researchers’ initial findings show that individuals who identified as LGBTQ+ on their applications were more likely to be first generation, Pell Grant recipients, and students of color. It was also apparent that important intersectional variations in academic outcomes exist for LGBTQ+ student subgroups and across ethnicity and gender, Beattie says.

“The work really makes clear how important it is to think about multiple identities at once and to look at things from multiple angles and to not just say, for example, ‘Oh, look, there’s this gender difference among Black students and women are doing better than men,’” she says. “When we drill down and see the details of that, there’s actually an LGBTQ+ texture to that gender difference as well.”

On a more widespread level, the absence of a federal requirement to gather LGBTQ+ data makes it difficult to conduct national studies on this population’s needs and experiences during college — and there are other good reasons to collect data, Beattie says. 

For example, data has been a key means of enforcing legal protections regarding race, ethnicity, and gender in both K-12 and higher education settings. Although the U.S. Department of Education recently released proposed revisions to Title IX to include safeguards for LGBTQ+ students, it will be difficult to ensure schools are following these guidelines without data to back it up, she says.

Until a federal requirement is established, Beattie advises schools to create partnerships between their institutional research offices and the scholars they already have on campus for guidance on best practices for collecting and acting on LGBTQ+ student data.

“Institutional research offices should be partnering with faculty who have this expertise to think about better ways to analyze their data to really see and understand these kinds of inequalities and address them,” she says.

While it can be challenging to find the best way to gather sensitive information about a student’s LGBTQ+ identity, especially since it can change during or after college, Beattie says the effort is worth it; the information can have a huge impact on a student’s sense of belonging at an institution, insight she gained during interviews with students who identified as LGBTQ+ on their applications.

“It really highlighted the psychological value of having the opportunity to say, ‘This is me; this is who I am. I’ve been out to my family for years, but this was the first time some institution asked me in an inclusive way,’” she says. “The lack of data — it’s also sort of a signal. The data itself matters but asking students to disclose also signals that the campus is a welcoming place for them.”

Lisa O’Malley is the assistant editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

This article was published in our November 2022 issue.