Building a better data system

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A new “Cradle-to-Career” (C2C) educational data system is taking shape in California, intended to provide an array of information on one platform that will provide tools for students to better navigate the education system and give educators a closer look at students’ needs and ideas to better serve them.

California had lagged behind most other states in developing such a longitudinal information platform, but officials there hope to leap ahead with a much broader swath of data about the system and its students – and better tools for students, researchers and colleges to use all the information effectively.

“This is an exceptionally exciting development for community colleges in California,” says John Hetts, visiting executive in research and data for the California Community Colleges, who served on the panel designing the system. It is a “remarkable opportunity to put a lot more data to work to supercharge efforts and improve outcomes for our students and help them plan their educational journey,” he says.

There are significant opportunities, many of which include automation, to vastly simplify all the challenging bureaucratic parts of going to college, Hetts says.

“It’s likely to cause us to look back at how we’re doing things now in the same the way today’s students look back at rotary telephones,” he says.

Tapping a swath of information

Some $15 million in funding was approved in 2021 to establish the system, a priority for Gov. Gavin Newsom after former Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated a statewide commission responsible for such data. Newsom’s 2021-22 budget summary says the system will improve on what other states have done by making its some 200 data points and 400 million records more useful and “futureproofed” so that its infrastructure won’t become outdated and its functionality will continue to improve.

The platform now moves toward deployment over the next five years, following 18 months of planning by a working group that included two dozen educators and policymakers with input from some 200 representatives of state agencies, education, affected organizations and community groups.

Transfers and more

“Probably the biggest advancement here for community colleges will be the ability to look both forward and backward, since they sit in the middle of a pipeline,” says Patrick Perry, division chief of policy, research and data for the California Student Aid Commission. He served on the working group for the system and long has been involved with state community colleges.

“Community colleges, for example, will be able to analyze the education records of students coming to them from both K-12 and adult learner populations, see where they are concurrently enrolled and where they work,” Perry says. “Then they can see the effectiveness of their programs by looking at where students end up.”

One of the 200 data points planned thus far concerns transfer students, and Perry believes community colleges could use that data to better understand which students intend to transfer and how successfully they enroll at a four-year school and then graduate within six years.

Community college students may benefit the most from the platform, says Tessa Carmen De Roy, founder and president of the California College Guidance Initiative (CCGI). It offers California students a sophisticated tool to explore and apply to colleges while their records and other information can be seamlessly shared by various institutions – a tool that will be a key part of the C2C system.

“Students can easily get derailed by administrative barriers”, she says, noting that sharing data among institutions can reduce many of those hurdles without involving students.

The CCGI tool streamlines the college financial aid application process, monitors in real-time student progress on application requirements, helps them get proper credit for their coursework, and reduces college admission rejection caused by bad data or missed deadlines, De Roy says.

Most of that system’s tools are already used by tens of thousands of students but will be more broadly available through the C2C system, she adds, and the additional C2C data will make it even more effective.

“Our collective goal is to reduce the friction and automate the process, while also using the data to improve outcomes and evaluate programs,” Perry says.

C2C also will support students’ foundational needs for food and medical care, identify struggling students and strengthen implementation of competency-based education, according to the governor’s office.

“Students who attend community college often go through a number of life events in quick succession,” Hetts says, noting the value of the platform’s focus on such support. “Many also have far less social capital navigating those changes. Those transitions create powerful frictional forces that often peel away many students aspiring to find something more through higher education.”

Five phases

Newsom’s office says the system is distinct because it uses a “whole child approach,” incorporating data from education-adjacent programs and institutions such as health and human services. During the pandemic, it became even more clear that linking academic data and information about student health, living circumstances and emotional well-being is important, the governor’s office says.

The five annual phases of C2C’s development begin the first year with establishing the platform and providing access to the CCGI college planning tool. Planners also are determining how to begin to gather various data and develop dashboards that will provide access to information about early childhood  and primary education, college and career readiness, transfer outcomes, financial aid and employment outcomes

In year two, they hope to launch the dashboards and a “query builder” function, train the public on using data tools, begin handling data requests, expand access to the college planning tools and upgrade the electronic transcript system to accommodate competency-based credentials. They also hope to finalize tools that will recognize social service needs.

The data will continue to expand in the third year, including information from independent and out-of-state colleges, and in the fourth year the plan for C2C calls for information from private colleges and early learning institutions to be included and for an expansion of the capabilities of the electronic transcript and college planning tools.

Social service, health and workforce information will be a focus in the fifth year, along with an evaluation of future needs and direction.

Perry notes that the specific direction of some portions of the platform has not taken shape, but that it might, for instance, provide information about which colleges students apply to, get accepted at, enroll in and graduate from, or how many students don’t apply for financial aid who are eligible and how they might be reached. It could provide information about the type of students who become employed at various levels and how that relates to their education pathway.

Tools for counselors, policymakers and researchers

In its final legislative report, the working group also noted that high school counselors will be able to identify students who are not on track for attending four-year institutions and better support students who have not completed applications for college or financial aid. They also will be able to help students understand employment outcomes for specific education pathways.

Other social service providers will be able to better understand how social supports impact education and living-wage attainment, and policymakers should be able to identify outcome and equity gaps, while researchers will have more data to track longer-term outcomes and the relationships between education, social and health services, and living-wage attainment, according to the governor’s office.

About the Author

Jim Paterson
writes about education and energy. He lives in Lewes, Delaware.