Pushing a Data-Driven Culture on One Campus

St. Petersburg College

Bill Law
April 29, 2013

William D. Law Jr. was talking about "big data" before it was a buzzword. Mr. Law, president of St. Petersburg College, has long argued that colleges can improve student performance with a little number crunching, just as many businesses increase efficiency by looking for trends in all the contacts they have with their customers.

Mr. Law, 64, entered the top job at St. Petersburg three years ago with not just an interest in the topic but also a unique expertise: Back in the 1980s, he led the college's institutional-research department, meaning he was in charge of providing achievement metrics to campus leaders.

THE INNOVATOR: William D. Law Jr., St. Petersburg College

THE BIG IDEA: Incorporating data can help improve student performance.

One of his first acts as president was to push for a better way to share such numbers. Until then, to find out, say, whether students in online courses were doing as well as those in traditional settings, a dean would have to send a request to the research department and wait two to three weeks for the answer. That report might prompt a follow-up question that would take weeks more to answer. By then the semester could be over.

Mr. Law oversaw the creation of a system called Pulse, which lets him and other administrators get answers to such questions instantly, anytime, through a simple Web interface with the college's databases.

"There are some presidents for whom this would be horrific," he says. Knowledge is power, after all, and many colleges carefully guard access to key metrics, some of which may be unflattering. "Not everyone is as enthusiastic about sharing information as I am," Mr. Law says with a laugh.

The key, he says, is to make sure that everyone on campus is clear about what the numbers mean, and that everyone can see the same information at the same time, so no one feels blindsided.

But providing the data is one thing; people also have to use it. So Mr. Law has worked to keep numbers in campus conversations as the institution attempts to add new services, such as a system of alerts that flag students who might be at risk of dropping out. Every Wednesday morning, the president and other officials gather—some in person and others via Webcast—for a 30-minute briefing, at which administrators report on the progress of five key projects, including the alert system.

A Chronicle reporter was allowed to tune in online to one of the meetings last month, and it was a fast-moving affair, with few pleasantries but plenty of charts and graphs. The meeting is not about suggesting changes in any of the projects—it's just about reporting the cold, hard numbers. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Law simply said: "All the numbers are certainly headed in the right direction."

One main function of the meeting is to give leaders a deadline to confront the numbers. "We have campus provosts who are spending eight hours a week focused on extracting data from the tool," says Jesse Coraggio, associate vice president for institutional effectiveness, research, and grants, who led the creation of the Pulse system.

"It has completely changed our culture," says Mr. Coraggio, who has been at the college for six years. "It is now a data-centered culture."

Mr. Law got his doctorate in college management from Florida State University and started his career as staff director for the state Legislature's Committee on Higher Education. He then led two-year colleges, including Montgomery College, outside Houston, and Tallahassee Community College. For fun he runs marathons (he has completed 31 of them). Naturally, he brings along a GPS and logs data from every run.

At St. Petersburg, he faced the challenge of leading a system of seven campuses with some 33,000 students. He believes that his data-backed approach is the best way to coordinate efforts. "For a big organization with multiple campuses, it's a trick to move everybody forward in the same way," he says.

The college built the Pulse system without hiring an expensive consultant or even buying new software. Like many colleges, it already ran the databases, and its programmers used existing software to build a customized interface.

Many colleges these days use data, of course. But Mr. Law's efforts are more comprehensive than most, says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Two-year colleges are the best places to see big-data experiments in higher education, she says: "Community colleges are well ahead of universities when it comes to using data for student success."

Some observers have worried about an overreliance on data in higher education, arguing that methods that work in other businesses can't be applied to a campus, where the kinds of life lessons students learn can be hard, or even impossible, to measure.

Mr. Law emphasizes that the data are simply a guide to conversations and decisions rather than an automatic trigger for action.

St. Petersburg's next step is to open the Pulse system to an even wider audience on campus. Today about 260 officials can see it, but most professors have been shut out over concerns that too much access could run afoul of federal student-privacy laws. Campus programmers are working to create an interface that will prevent users from seeing details about individual students while giving all professors access, so they can detect important trends.

What kinds of decisions are they making based on Pulse? The system recently showed that students who attended an in-person orientation at the beginning of the year performed better than those who sat in on an online version, so officials are considering changes in future orientations.

"The entire institution can see the progress of our major strategic initiatives, and they see their part in it," says Mr. Law. "It has mobilized the institution."