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How to Diagnose Post-Graduation Health With Data

Paden Goldsmith, FIU Analytics - Steppingblocks

Season 1  |  Episode 4  |  Dr. Jacob Bonne With Guest-Host Paden Goldsmith, FIU

Paden Goldsmith, Assistant Director of Strategic Data Analysis at Florida International University, shares how FIU monitors the health of their graduates using outcomes data to illustrate employment, salary and outlook. On the flip side, Paden explains how they use the same tracking to uncover weaknesses and inform interventions to help current students.

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[0:06] ERIN KING
More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong, and which institutions are rising to the challenge. In Season One, we're investigating the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing challenges in higher education. Dr. Bonne, what do you have planned for us today?

Thank you, Erin. Today, I'm really excited to have one of our current partner institutions with us: Florida International University. And in particular, we have Paden Goldsmith, the Assistant Director of Strategic Data Analysis from FIU, who will be joining us to talk a little bit about how FIU is leveraging outcomes data from Steppingblocks and a variety of other sources to support students on their journey to postgraduate success. So with that, I'll turn it over to Paden to share a little bit about what you do at a high level.

Sure, thank you so much. So I'm Paden Goldsmith, Assistant Director at FIU, and we've been in the game of data analytics and intensively monitoring the performance of our students for a number of years now. In particular, with this current project with Steppingblocks, we're focusing an awful lot on the post-graduation health of our students, figuring out where everybody is, which is sometimes a phenomenal challenge when you're pumping out around 15-16,000 graduates every year, from just the baccalaureate level alone. And then figuring out, ultimately, ways that we can better serve those students after graduation, beyond just the curriculum that we've developed here and some other stuff that we've got working.

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[2:04] BONNE
Thank you for sharing. I think one interesting piece there, that I have often thought to be super interesting, is the relationship and responsibility after graduation. You just mentioned there, that you're helping those students after they have graduated. Can you talk to us a little bit more about the reason behind that, or the philosophy as to why you're investing so much time and energy into students after they graduate, which we know is a great thing; but why has FIU chosen to do that?

Sure. Well, there's a few different reasons. Perhaps the biggest one is: It's kind of just the right thing to do. Our graduates here, indeed our whole student body at FIU, is very diverse. We're majority minority. We're the largest baccalaureate-producing institution for Hispanic students and in the top 10 for Black and African-American students. So, as sort of logically follows from that, we also need to work on ways to ensure that our student body is adequately represented across a variety of different industries, but also that they're not leaving college with a whole lot of debt that they don't really have an outlet to repay. Right.

And a lot of these things were made a bit more difficult from the pandemic, which also leads to one of the other awesome things about the state of Florida and the Florida State University system, that codifies a lot of these initiatives of caring for the well-being of our graduates after they leave us. So in the state of Florida, in part, universities are actually funded for things like the graduation rate of our students, but also how many of our students are employed after they leave us full-time making adequate salaries, and also the wages themselves of our graduates. So it's one of those things that it serve morally right for the institution, but also a functional necessity of where we live.

[4:41] BONNE
Thank you. Yeah, I definitely want to come back to the metrics and some of those performance goals in a couple of minutes. But would you mind walking us through the nuts and bolts of this process? Really, what are y'all doing to provide this support after graduation to students?

Sure, well, it can broadly be categorized under two main drives. So the first is tracking our students, right? Figuring out of all of our graduates, who's going where and what sort of weaknesses we're seeing in terms of areas, programs, demographics, etc., that are evident from that graduating pool of students. So that then we can create interventions to tackle some of these things. For example, providing internships or higher quality study, research, etc., for some of our students, depending on if they ultimately choose to go to graduate school or enter directly into the workforce.

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It's also one of the things that we're wanting to do is set up a peer and alumni mentorship system, which we're already piloting with some of our programs at FIU that would match some groups of students with alumni from their field; so they can get a taste of how the actual employment area works. (Some of the things that the alumni did good and education that can help students and so on.) We found that to be very positive, not only for ultimately, like career aspects, but also simply student engagement. We found that students engage an awful lot when they have alumni and peers that they can look to that have these sorts of experiences.

[6:42] BONNE
Absolutely. Yeah, it reminds me of Astin's Theory of Involvement — one of our foundational research theories in higher ed — this idea that students learn more from their peers than they often do from classroom experience. So interesting to hear that you're scaling that to alumni. I think that's a really cool application of that theory and something that I haven't heard many other institutions do. What would you say to another institution or to your colleagues who might be considering launching a similar program? What have been some of the successes, some of the challenges?

Well, I'll start with some of the challenges first. So the biggest, by and large, is growing those initiatives, grassroots-style. So many institutions in the higher ed space have multi-armed outreach layers. So they might have an Alumni Services Center that calls up alumni for fundraising and may know a little bit about where the alumni currently are. We also have different surveys, for example: the outreach at different points in time along the alumni path after graduation. So we can see sometimes when weak points are in terms of employment.

But first and foremost, just figuring out which sorts of populations are being served well and different things that we can do in different programs to drive home some of those initiatives — things like certificates that represent different high profile skill sets that we found that employers, and indeed even things like graduate programs, oftentimes look for as markers of success or high quality. So we've been trying to refine those into the curriculum as well.

[8:46] BONNE
That's great. You mentioned employers there. What role have employers played in this process, if at all, or is that something that might be on the roadmap?

Some. We have constant outreach to employers in terms of setting up different internship opportunities. Our Career Services Center does a phenomenal job of reaching out to different employers, including some really high profile ones like Google and so on, that we have a decent foothold for students to serve onboard into looking for internships and other experiences.

[9:28] BONNE
That's great. Certainly, that's another important aspect of this relationship, is thinking about how to bridge those connections. Going back to the metrics that you mentioned for the state there, this idea of performance metrics is something that is certainly common to the state of Florida, but also a number of institutions around the country. How would you say those metrics and, in particular, the post-graduation goals have helped shape the discourse on campus? Both for staff, like yourself, who were involved in this work, and perhaps other faculty and staff who may not be as connected to the data or post-grad initiatives.

Take a tour of the Digital Career Counselor.

One of the amazing things about the performance funding system broadly (and this applies both to the post-graduation metrics, as well as all of the other points in it as well) is that it's done a phenomenal job of driving home the importance of student success in the student experience on the campuses.

Students are paying a phenomenal amount of money in order to go to get their baccalaureate or master's or doctoral degree here at these institutions, and it's been great to see the performance funding systems escalate the importance of that student experience, all the way up to the senior leadership of the institutions. Indeed, even here at FIU, we've seen our graduation rate in four years for first-time in college students climb from around 28 percent when I first arrived at FIU, all the way up into the the mid/high 50s now. So we've seen phenomenal success there, as well as good success in terms of improved wages, improved employment rates, better student retention. It's really made an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, at least at FIU.

[11:46] BONNE
Absolutely, yeah. I think that definitely makes sense. One piece that I noticed, as we were reviewing these metrics is emphasis on ensuring that students have been to the Career Center or complete career readiness training early in their academic career. So I know the impetus for our conversation today was success after graduation and helping students get set up if they need additional resources, but to what aspects are you really looking at this entire cycle of career readiness, the pathway to graduation, throughout the student's academic journey?

[12:25] GOLDMITH
Oh, definitely. So our students here at FIU, literally, in the first semester that they arrive on campus (or, in the case of our fully online programs, their first semester with us electronically) are exposed to elements of that career readiness from the very get-go. From exposing them to some of the career outcomes very early on.

For example, and I know this is probably common to a lot of freshmen out there, and I can actually speak to it from personal experience: When I was a student, early on I entered and I wanted to be an engineer, much like, you know, probably 80 percent of other freshmen men coming into campus nowadays. And within that first semester, some of the exposure to other career pathways quickly made me change my mind. I became more interested in the statistics predicting human behavior and ultimately ended up going into psychology, getting a master's and working to do that same sort of thing on a more broad scale.

FIU tries to do that same process, from Step A all the way to the end, by exposing our students to not only the necessary skill sets that they would need in order to become marketable and employable, but also exposing them to the different opportunities that arise from those employment opportunities. And the different pathways open to them early on.

[14:16] BONNE
Yeah, that sounds like a great plan to help get folks connected as early as possible. And certainly there's a variety of other issues we talk about, related to major development. Just as you mentioned, your path shifted, and many students are waiting far too long into their academic careers to make some of those decisions. So it sounds like there's some great work happening at FIU to address those concerns early and often for students. Well, that I think is just about the list of questions that we had for you, Paden. Any additional parting thoughts or words of wisdom as we do what we can to continue to educate institutions across the country on how to leverage data to support student success and post-graduation success?

Yeah, that I just want to emphasize something that I think often goes underplayed and that's: What gets tracked often gets accomplished. So it is of paramount importance for many institutions out there, to get a hold of some of that data as it relates to employment and student success and put into action. Right?

We can follow it very closely, in terms of how any institution is performing, but once you start to see how things progress over a long period of time, and how the institution's graduate and employee students, there's a lot of data out there. There's a ton of detail, and it's ultimately very easy and very useful to get a hold of this information and make some actionable insights in terms of what can be used to impact the student's life, not only when they're with the institution, but after they leave us as well.

[16:15] BONNE
You know, Paden, I worked at a state institution in Florida. I was at UCF for a number of years, and I remember the original resistance to the metrics, and then eventually, folks realized exactly what you just said. It created so much more buy-in for the folks outside of the Student Success and IR realm to be invested. So, really interesting.

And you can see the difference it's made, too. It's not just that it's buy-in, it's that it's had tangible results that you can directly point to, and you can see. Like if you look at a lot of the fastest rising institutions and U.S. News and World Report, Times Higher Ed, some of those other rankings, man, they're all in Florida. And a big reason for that is because of that focus. It steered an entire state towards a deliberate focus on making sure that the student experience is not only worthwhile and healthy, but also expedited in a sense.

[17:30] BONNE
Phenomenal. Awesome Paden. Well, thank you for your time today. We really appreciate the conversation.

Thank you so much for having me.

What is Steppingblocks for students?

Research your future career with real-world stats about your major, your interests, and your job title. Turn billions of data-points into actionable insights about your future with a few simple clicks. Watch the video to find out how.