Conference Presentation in Victoria, BC: PNAIRP

Conference Presentation in Victoria, BC: PNAIRP

This past weekend, I presented at the 2013 annual conference for the Pacific Northwest Association for Institutional Research and Planning (PNAIRP). Currently, I am the research analyst at Bates Technical College where I provide much of the institutional research for the organization. Institutional research is the study of the college itself: It is my job to delve into College data and create the analyses necessary for leadership (and faculty) to understand where we are, how we are doing, and what is coming around the corner. Even though it is not urban planning, it does touch a lot of the same values that draw me to the planning field: Analysis, positive social impact, and being in a role where my work can be transformative.

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The research that I presented at the conference is based on our work at the College to provide an open and inviting atmosphere for all students and that results in our students thriving in today’s multicultural workplace. We are a technical college, which means that a lot of our education is focused on very practical matters like how to weld or put a network together. As part of this hands on focus, human diversity elements are often less emphasized than elements that have a direct application in the workplace. My presentation at the conference focused on measuring cultural offerings and diversity at our institution, as well as the tools that we developed to do so.

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Recognizing and incorporating diversity starts with the very first piece of paper that students fill out in order to apply admissions. There is a place on every form for demographic information, but the quality of the information being collected varies significantly. I surveyed over 40 colleges and found that the range of options available to students for self-identification of their racial/ethnic identity ranged significantly. At the low end, some colleges collected only the most basic 6 categories (Asian, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, White, American Indian/Alaska Native, ¬†and Latino). These are the categories that are required, but they do not provide an adequate view of the student population for those schools that are interested in addressing the differing needs of cultural communities on their campuses. For example, 100 students from Ghana and 100 African-American students are generalized to 200 “Black/African-American” students. However, these two groups have significantly different experiences and a program that addresses some of the challenges that one group faces may not be directly applicable to the other. Additionally, once this information is collected, it is relatively difficult to update. If a board member asked how many Africans are served by the college, the person in IR would not be able to provide that information because you cannot disaggregate the data gathered like this.

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In order to address this issue, and what I believe is a best practice on numerous levels, many colleges opt to provide students with additional racial/ethnic codes that they can use to self-identify their individual backgrounds. The high end for colleges surveyed was 118 total individual options (as well as a text box for an arbitrary string value). The average overall was 28 different options available for students. Much of these additional options come from the ability to specify tribal affiliations, but some colleges did offer additional options in the other areas as well. Primarily, these were for cultural groups with traditional origins in Asia and the Pacific Islands. By offering an expanded set of options, these colleges do two things simultaneously.

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First, this provides students the ability to see themselves as being part of the institution from day one. Many students experience stereotype threat in higher education that can reinforce a feeling that they do not belong on campus. As a rule, colleges do not explicitly seek to create this type of feeling. There are factors in play that go far beyond what the college has control over, but when possible and there is minimal cost associated with it colleges should seek to reduce stereotype threat by providing opportunites for a student’s identity to be mirrored in the institution (For an excellent and illuminating deeper look into these dynamics, I suggest “Whistling Vivaldi” by Claude Steele). Including a code that mirror’s that enables the student to affirm their identity in an official document at the university is a simple and positive step that contributes to a welcoming atmosphere (although it certainly is not a silver bullet).

Second, it provides people working in IR with more information. If you want to know who you serve, then IR needs to have this type of information. We can easily combine these into generalized categories for reporting, but it does not run the opposite direction. This level of granularity is generally not required for IR work, but in order to answer questions about what cultural communities are active on campus and how that has changed over time. If and when these questions occur in the future, people in IR are generally limited to the data on hand. It is a time consuming process if we are required to get that information after the fact, it can’t be collected retrospectively, and data storage is far less expensive. In short, collect it! It is a best practice and there is not much downside to it.

My presentation also included two other components. The first was a review of some of the intercultural competency surveys available out there and then lastly a presentation of the tool that we developed at Bates. I am not a huge fan of the survey technique primarily because they are expensive and difficult to implement. In order to measure institutional effectiveness, you really need a pre- and post- test, which in turn requires having a consistent cohort between the two sessions. At $10 a response, it seems like there much be a better use of resources. These surveys include the Intercultural Development Inventory, the Global Competencies Inventory, and Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (among others).

Our tool, in contrast, called the Essential Dimensions: Cultural and Diversity Assessment (EDCDA) is a tool developed in house for the purpose of measuring the quantity and quality of college offerings related to human diversity awareness and intercultural competence. It does not measure the value of the culture being presented, but is rather a tool for measuring the quality of the educational offerings of the college in these areas. To put it another way, we are measuring the number of books in a library collection and the condition of each book, but there is no attempt at measuring which of the stories in the books are the most worthwhile. The theory that we are operating on is that intercultural education and skill building is a cumulative process, which means that every contribution is valuable even if the contributions are not of equal scale or depth. The tool was developed in order to cover everything from a reading assignment on Rosie the Riveter to a campus wide event that delves into the experience of people with disabilities. Creating an environment where there are multiple and consistent opportunities to engage in these issues increases the likelihood that a student will encounter an event or activity that resonates with them and provides insight that expands their ability to thrive in the multicultural world that we live in today.

The tool itself was primarily authored by myself with support from our diversity center and the members of the Integrating Diversity and Equal Access in Learning (IDEAL) Council (I am also a member of the council). I can’t release all of the details here, since the tool technically belongs to Bates Technical College, but the basic structure is a survey that measures how the organizer and participants rate an event or offering along several lines. Some are quantitative (How long? How many attended?), while other dimensions are subjective: How engaging was the topic? Was skill development part of it? How effective was it at skill development? How deep did the presentation delve into the topic? All of these are then compiled and the overlap is presented back to the organizer in order to help drive more accurate estimates of future events. The degree of difference between the organizer’s intent about the outcomes of the event and the student’s experience of the event are very informative and interesting to explore. Where there is a great degree of difference between the two, there are lessons to be learned.

I enjoyed the presentation and also the trip up. Here are a flew up on Kenmore Air, which is a local airline that flies seaplanes exclusively. It’s an amazing way to see the Northwest!