Reflections on the 2020 ATD Data & Analytics Summit

Last week, Achieving the Dream hosted the 7th annual Data & Analytics Summit. The theme of this year’s summit was dismantling barriers and biases in higher education and, unlike previous years, it was entirely virtual.

Thanks to the online format, we had record attendance: over 500 people attended, from 39 states and Washington, D.C. We even had international attendees, with Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) winning our unofficial award for “largest time zone adjustment.


“So what?” Why data matters.
From day one, we saw high levels of interest in and engagement with the conference’s subject material—it’s more important than ever for institutions not just to understand data, but to use them to promote equity in our communities, and Summit attendees were eager to dive in. 
On Monday, two of our pre-conference sessions sold out, including How to Tell a Story with Data, presented by ATD’s Jennifer Hill-Kelly and Dr. Elayne Reiss.

In the opening plenary session on Tuesday, ATD’s president and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout said that the Summit was designed to ground us in what we’ve learned, challenge us to think boldly and innovatively, and excite us to act with urgency to improve student outcomes.

She ended the session with a blueprint for imagining a future where community colleges:

  • Embrace a bold new access agenda
  • Expand our reach with community partners to more vulnerable populations
  • Reimagine connections with local employers across the life cycle of learning
  • Redefine student success goals beyond completion
  • Center our influence in our communities
  • Leverage local funding

The plenary sessions over the next few days explored how current data practices are failing to address inequities and provided rich examples of where institutions can dismantle barriers and biases to bring us closer to that more equitable future Dr. Stout envisions.

“Wait, what?” Exploring insights from the field.
Wednesday’s discussions about invisible students, hidden in the standard disaggregation categories, were powerful reminders that we need to think more holistically, acknowledge diversity, and ground success in community norms and values. As Dr. Jameson Lopez said, “We shouldn’t be asking if you are Native, but what your Native experiences are.” Co-presenters Dr. Shelley Lowe and Dr. Heather Shotton discussed insights from their book Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education and suggested more resources for attendees to explore — we included in an “extension” of Dr. Stout’s 2020 reading list in the closing session.

We have all seen how the shift to remote learning has had an outsized negative impact on first-generation and racially minoritized students. The qualitative data Brittney Davidson provided in Lighting Up Your LMS (learning management systems) on Tuesday suggest ways in which institutions can design more equitable services and supports for students. This includes training faculty on the power of data and working with technology vendors to build more variables and analytics for colleges to capture more nuances and intersectional information about their students.

In Designing Career Pathways for Economic and Social Mobility, Dr. John Friedman said that college is an important leveler for upward mobility. He walked attendees through just one example from the Opportunity Atlas, a great resource to explore for further insight on social mobility in the U.S. He stressed that access and student success are two key factors in assessing how schools can affect upward economic mobility.

“Now what?” Data is just the starting point.
We are facing a period of rapid change that will require us to be even more adaptive and flexible to respond to the needs of our students. As one of ATD’s coaches said, “Many colleges have been the local engines of economic development. Now, we must also become the engines for tackling community equity gaps as well.”  This means understanding the levers for change in our institutions and in our communities.

On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Debra Gilchrist said, “Data is not the story; it is the starting point.”

What can we do within our sphere of influence to improve outcomes? Equity is everyone’s job: faculty, advisors, IR, IT, financial aid—all working together. Even accreditors are increasingly focusing on institutional commitment to equity.

Centering our colleges in our communities, leveraging our localness, exploiting our strengths—this is our mission and our challenge. And based on the energy and excitement our Summit attendees showed last week, it is a challenge we are more than ready to take on.

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