Telling the story of student engagement,
one data set at a time
“Our job is to serve students, to improve their experience. And we know we're doing it because for the first time, they're actually using the tool and they're excited about it."
When Vince Miller became Valdosta State University’s Vice President of Student Affairs in 2016, he put his ear to the ground and did one thing: listened. He wanted to learn about the struggles and the triumphs of the division and about how the division could grow.
During that process, one thing became clear. Everyone was trying to tell the story of student engagement efforts around campus, but there wasn’t data to back it up.
VSU used a software tool (Campus Lab’s Collegiate Link) to help manage student organizations, but they were priced out of the event check-in add-on. Students described VSU’s previous software solution as clunky to use, confusing, and ultimately, more work than it was worth. As a student-turned-staff member, Evan Fondren knew the software frustration from both sides.
“As a student using CollegiateLink, it was clear that no one understood how to use the software. Students just wouldn’t touch it because it didn’t feel like it was made for them. By the time I became a staff member, we weren’t really using it anymore.” — Evan Fondren
How can you tell the story of the value of student affairs if student leaders won’t adopt the technology you’re using to track engagement? You can’t.
So you take a deep breath and you change software providers.
When evaluating new student engagement software providers, Valdosta State University looked toward a few key considerations. They wanted to ensure that their new service provider would be a partner to them, that students would gravitate toward the software, and that it provided comprehensive involvement analytics. That’s how VSU became part of the Presence family.
Right off the bat, it was clear that students were responding differently to Presence than they had to other solutions.
“In my time in higher ed, I’ve used three different student engagement platforms. Presence is the first and only one that students have actually adopted. That is so telling and important to us.” — Vince Miller
Because students were willing — and eager — to adopt the new tool, the division of student affairs was able to say with certainty that they were reaching and engaging students. Student leaders have adopted the platform with open arms. They even come to budget meetings prepared with data.
“As a student, using CampusLabs’ CollegiateLink was such an unpleasant experience. It was a mess, and it just didn’t make any sense. So now as a staff member, it’s really exciting and rewarding to see students adopt Presence so easily. They love getting their data about how their events are doing, and it’s just become part of their routine.” — Evan Fondren
In 2017, VSU had approximately 8,800 undergraduate students. In the fall semester of that year, 5,338 students attended campus events. That’s a 61% engagement rate — something that the division wouldn’t have been able to confidently measure when they were struggling with another software tool.
“Before, we weren’t doing any data collection. The software we used was just a student organization management tool. We were just putting out a sign-up sheet at events, then we’d collect it, and most of the time do absolutely nothing with it. At the end of the semester, we’d get out all of the forms, count the sign-ins by hand, and make a report. That was terrible. We wanted to add a check-in component but it was too expensive to even be a possibility.” — John Wright
Presence’s analytics also allowed VSU to see which departments and student organizations were most successfully engaging students.
It was important for VSU to be able to see more than just event analytics, though. Their team wanted to be able to see the connection between involvement and other key metrics like retention, graduation rates, and GPA. Student affairs partnered with IT to develop business intelligence dashboards that would allow them to use data from a variety of sources — Presence, Banner, and others — to model student success across a variety of properties.
These dashboards allow VSU to study both their over-involved and under-involved students to identify behaviors and trends, which in turn allows the student affairs team to develop proactive and reactive strategies to support those students.
Now that VSU can collect the data they’ve always wanted to, they’re looking toward the future. One of Vince’s hopes is to be able to develop a student engagement map that is informed by involvement data.
The division is also using Presence to build co-curricular frameworks and gamify involvement. In addition to creating an engagement score, students will be able to cash in their involvement points.
Actionable, real-time data has become an intrinsic part of Valdosta’s division of student affairs, and it’s here to stay.
“I wasn’t always really into data. When I was in my doctoral program, collecting data was really frustrating to me. But Presence is changing that for me.” — John Wright
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