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Improving Outcomes for Native American Students at the U. of Montana

Episode 113

July 26, 2022 32 minutes


Dr. Brian Reed and Zach Rossmiller from the University of Montana join EAB’s Pavani Reddy to discuss a new initiative their institution has launched to help Native American students succeed. The three discuss initial learnings from the project, dubbed “Data for Student Equity,” which is funded in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation*.

The project enables university leaders to access and analyze data creatively to identify institutional and financial obstacles preventing Native American students from earning their degrees. While there is still much work to be done, new approaches are being developed at the university that could be replicated by other institutions to positively impact enrollment, retention, and career success for all students.

*The views expressed are those of the host and speakers and should not be attributed to the funders.



0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we’re joined by leaders from The University of Montana who are partnering with EAB on an innovative project designed to provide more effective support to Native American students. The project funded in part by a grant from the Gates Foundation, has a dual focus: Unlocking siloed data to uncover bottlenecks in student support, and engaging students directly to ask them about the obstacles they encounter throughout their college journey. The hope is that this project will serve as a proof of concept leading to better approaches to supporting students from all backgrounds, at all kinds of institutions. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:01:02.3 Pavani: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Pavani Reddy, and I am EAB’s principal for strategic partnerships to promote economic mobility and racial equality. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Brian Reed, the Associate Vice Provost for student success at the University of Montana, and by Zach Rossmiller, University of Montana’s Chief Information Officer. Welcome to the podcast, both of you.

0:01:28.6 Brian: Thanks.

0:01:30.9 Zach: Thank you.

0:01:31.8 S1: Brian and Zach, I wanted to have you on the podcast to share what you both are learning from the work we’ve been doing this past year and what we’re calling the data for student equity project. So for the past year or so, we’ve been working together on this data for student equity project, which is a project funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and really the goal has been to unify data to support historically underserved students. I wanted to invite each of you to introduce yourselves and what you do as your day job, and also the role that you play in this data for student equity project. Brian, how about we go ahead and start with you?

0:02:08.5 Brian: Thanks. I’m Brian Reed, I’m the Associate Vice Provost for Student Success here at the University of Montana. And I oversee our student success initiatives here, which includes tutoring, Office of Disability Equity, our career services office, and a host of what you would consider your traditional student affairs portfolio. For this project particularly, I was the equity lead at the University of Montana. And what that essentially means is that I helped gather together those campus leaders who most directly serve Native American students on our campus, many of whom themselves are Native American from Montana, and so that we could have their particular insights about the student experience in this project. And also, they were critical in helping us get students involved in the focus groups as well, and so I felt like my task was essentially to make sure we had everyone who understood or had a part in the Native American students experience at the table.

0:03:13.6 Zach: I would say my role for this project is quite unique. I’m a champion of this project, I help resolve barriers or anything comes in the way, I try help removing those obstacles. So basically, I’m here to ensure that the UM team and EAB has what they need to be successful.

0:03:34.6 Pavani: So Zach, I’d love for you to give us the back story on how University of Montana has been thinking about the relationship between student success and data.

0:03:45.0 Zach: I think it’s been pretty interesting, if you look at the progression over the last few years, so asking basic questions of our students was never really an easy answer. Now with many different silo technology platforms that contains all that pertinent information, there’s a challenge really to accurately… Or predict, I guess, student behavior, and that’s an issue that many institutions face, we’re inundated with different software systems, which leads to institutions understanding less and less about their students. So a few years ago, our chief data officer, Don Russell had led a campaign to free the data, which moved UM’s campus data from a matrix of siloed and hard-to-access systems to basically an environment in which users can… Across the university, can easily access that reliable information. And with that effort, it kinda helped us put it together to create an insight and an overarching data ecosystem, which really helped break down those barriers that led to equity gaps among our students, especially with the indigenous students that make up a majority of our minoritized students. It also helped really highlight the comprehensive data usage and how it can help break down equity barriers.

0:04:58.9 Pavani: Yeah, and Brian, I’d love to ask you a similar kind of question. In your work, what kinds of challenges did you notice that students were having because of siloed data? And I’m wondering if you can also comment on why and how these challenges may even be more of a burden for Native American students at the University of Montana.

0:05:23.6 Brian: Sure, I’m glad you asked the latter question. Specifically, we know that the financial aid process for any student can be pretty complex. And University of Montana, we have a great number or percentage or proportion of students who are first generation and low income, so a lot of students who receive federal aid and whose families have never navigated that process before, so they rely a lot on institutional resources to help navigate those processes. What becomes particularly complex for Native American students is not only the federal policies and procedures for FAFSA, there’re also tribal scholarships, and then state waivers for Native American students too. And a lot of times, the timing of those pieces of funding don’t get released at the same time. And so there wasn’t a really coordinated or centralized place where any one professional at the institution could see an indigenous or Native American student’s financial picture.

0:06:28.2 Brian: And what that resulted into… The other thing I wanna talk about is what was revealed a lot in our focus groups for students was the reliance that a lot of students have on one or two particular professionals at the institution, particularly our director of American Indian Student Services, and then our tribal liaison as well. And so what was happening is, because they’re not financial aid experts, they were doing a lot of referrals or trying to piece together disparate information to help a student make sense of their financial aid package. And it was just a really cumbersome, incomplete process with a lot of unnecessary hand-offs and referrals that I think frustrated students and families. And so we are gonna, I think, wildly benefit from being able to do some one-stop shopping with students and families, particular concerns their financial aid.

0:07:25.5 Brian: The other thing that we noticed was that our students want… We also found this out in the focus groups. A lot of our students are seeking post-secondary education to earn a credential, to then go back and help their home communities. We heard that a lot, that they wanna be in service to their home communities and tribes. But what was not always clear about what were the vocational or job opportunities that they could do post-graduation, and not only that, what they could do in terms of internships or research experiences that would help them be strong candidates for post-graduation career success. And so, that’s another element of this project that I’m really proud of and excited about is how we can help students understand how to get involved in our high-impact practices, our research, our internships, our study-abroads, to help them be career-ready, and then also to understand the breadth of opportunities that might exist post-graduation.

0:08:28.8 Pavani: Yeah, it’s fascinating, Brian and Zach, having helped facilitate a lot of the immersive design experiences that we did together across this past fall and spring, I think we did seven of them in total, where we talked with practitioners in enrollment in student success and career success. I was struck by a couple of things: One was the alignment that your practitioners seem to have about what the most important problems were, many of which you’ve just described on your campus, and also how closely their view of the problems, their assessment of the problems really matched the challenges that Native American students articulated in a series of focus groups, and you’ve referred to the focus groups a few times, Brian, that we conducted together in the spring semester. And so I wanted to ask you, Brian, if… What else you might have uncovered in engaging in these immersive design experiences with so many leaders and teams across your campus? What did you uncover through that process that you really noticed that that process kind of elicited for you?

0:09:43.5 Brian: It’s a great question. And the one that keeps me up at night since we’ve had the focus groups has been service matters. Full stop, service matters. But what I mean by that is that what we heard repeatedly from students was that, how they were treated, how they felt treated by professionals on campus when they were getting that bounce around, when the referrals were happening, was it empathetic? Was it humane? Did they present options to the students? Really mattered to students a lot to feel… With respect to their sense of belonging to the campus. Because the other thing that surfaced too, and this is part of my point, is that what we heard a lot about, and what I subsequently later did my own research on was that the lingering effects of the boarding school system in the United States looms very largely in education in indigenous communities.

0:10:47.0 Brian: And what I mean by that is the persistent mistrust about predominantly White institutions’ education, and how those institutions, an institution like UM and others provide that education. So there’s this initial skepticism. And so when I say service matters, what we’re really trying to do is bridge a lot of that skepticism, because it doesn’t take a lot for us to lose a student’s trust, and so we have to be very vigilant in how we cultivate relationships at every point. And what I tell my staff is that every opportunity of service and interface of service is always an ability for us to retain a student, that we need to take that charge very seriously.

0:11:40.8 Pavani: And I wanted to also bring you in, Zach, into this part of the conversation, because I wanted to ask you what you think is most challenging about enabling staff to be able to provide that level of service, that kind of service, that kind of knowledge of students, and often we know that knowing students really means knowing things about them, so knowing about the different experiences that they’ve had, knowing some of their concerns, knowing what their interests are academically and otherwise, and really that all is kind of encapsulated in the university’s data. And so I wanted to ask you about what you think is most challenging about enabling staff across the University of Montana to work with data and unearth new insights.

0:12:32.9 Zach: Yeah, I think what Brian alluded to was service. It’s pretty challenging for a staff member to try providing that support to a student if they are in 20 different systems, trying to pull out data. And that’s kind of just what we’ve seen over the last few years, where having all these different systems with all the different data sources, it’s kind of hard to really provide that support. And so using the Edify data platform where we can take all those different data sources: Housing, admissions data, our ERP data, where we can put it into one system and then kinda organize it in a way that makes sense, then we can start building out those dashboards and other analytic tools that we can use to help provide that service. I remember as a student many, many years ago, coming to UM and getting the complete run around from different offices. And it was frustrating then. I can only imagine what a student goes through now, especially those students that are coming from a background where they might not have that support system and not knowing who to turn to, it’s very frustrating. And the work that Brian’s team has done is incredible…

0:13:57.7 Zach: And I just can’t applaud them enough on it. But the challenge with UM and our data, it’s… Some of the things that we need to implement and that we’ve been working on implementing the last few years is kinda around data governance and just data fluency and having standard data definitions, which seems… Maybe some institutions will be like, “Yeah, we’ve done that years ago,” but us trying to make sure that we’re all on the same agreement on what a data definition is and making sure we have the data stewards to actually help govern that. That in itself is gonna pay off, then we’re gonna start seeing those benefits coming back to the staff when they are providing that support to the students.

0:14:44.9 Brian: And to piggyback, if you don’t mind, on Zach’s point, a lot of this data also exists across different units or divisions within the institution as well. And so it’s not as if even if a practitioner had access to that data per se, that it doesn’t all exist in their dashboard or their individual access, and so it creates a lot of inefficiencies as well for that person to be able to serve a student.

0:15:17.9 Zach: And taking then the national data, and then being able to compare benchmark between us and what other institutions do, I think it’s a really helpful tool.

0:15:27.9 Pavani: Yeah, both of you have raised so many of the tactical elements of this, like getting aligned on the different sources of the data, getting aligned on their definitions, organizing the data into a usable format. I know all of that came up in our innovation process here and… Brian, I know that this fall, several of your post colleagues are going to be using one of the dashboards that we’ve designed, that we’ve sort of informally titled ‘The Financial Barriers Identifier.’ Can you tell us a little bit more about this dashboard and how it resolves some of these challenges and how you think it could benefit students?

0:16:07.3 Brian: Sure, and I think one of the things that immediately comes to mind is that we have a lot of students, generally at the institution, who file their FAFSA fairly late. And one of the things that this dashboard will do is allow our practitioners… And I would imagine, particularly our director of American Indian Student Services who has a lot of pre-matriculation contact with students, to reach out to those students to say, “Hey, I see that your FAFSA hasn’t been filed. Let’s work together to make that happen.” And so it allows for a lot of more pre-matriculation or proactive advising that can take place, because a lot of times, that wasn’t happening until the student landed on campus. They’ve got a bill, but they don’t have the aid coming in. The other thing too, that I really like about the tool is it’s both an individual student solution, so that means I can look at an individual student’s package, whether they’ve applied for the waiver, received the waiver, scholarships, FAFSA, etcetera.

0:17:17.1 Brian: But what it also does, and I think this is the chef’s kiss of the solution, is the… It’s an aggregator as well, so it can give you population sort of health with respect to looking at the totality of Native American students who haven’t completed a waiver. And so then our director of American Indian Student Services can then use that list to do mass mailings to students in a much more efficient and an effective manner. And so I really think the beauty of the solution is both the… At the individual student level and at the population level.

0:17:54.2 Pavani: And while you were describing that, I think it only makes sense maybe to talk about the additional prototype that you all are thinking about implementing for the spring term, which is the employment pathways generator, that’s the informal name of it. And the reason I’m bringing this one up, Brian and Zach, is that Brian, you alluded to through the focus groups, and uncovering the challenge is really trying to understand what students pathways are when it comes to…

0:18:24.6 Brian: Sure.

0:18:25.1 Pavani: Preparing for their career and preparing for post-graduation success.

0:18:29.0 Brian: Absolutely, and if you’ve worked in the world of student success long enough, you know that one of the key elements to both persistence and completion is that students have a clear understanding of their goals and purposes for pursuing post-secondary education, and for a lot of students that revolves around post-graduate career aspirations, and so what we hope to do with this particular solution is allow students to start that exploration and that refinement of their whys or their goals much earlier in their career with the notion that if they do that… Not only are we setting them up for success post-graduation, but we know that’s also a persistence and completion tool as well, when they’ve really spent intentional time refining their academic and career goals together.

0:19:27.3 Pavani: And one of the very interesting elements of that, that particular tool is this idea that several of your practitioners brought up kind of a wrongly designed process, which was not being totally sure whether some of the best practices, “Best practices” that work for students in general, are really benefiting this priority population of Native American students.

0:19:53.2 Brian: Yeah, yeah, so that’s one thing. That’s another thing that the solution allows us to do is we just didn’t know what… I mean, to be frank, we didn’t know what they were participating in, any student, and I think what this solution, again, allows us to do is look at the high impact practices that Native American students are participating in, and looking at where we get the most bang for our buck in terms of student success outcomes, whether that’s persistence, completion, GPAs, or even post-graduate outcomes like underemployment or good jobs data, and so this really allows us to sort of map the terrain as it were about where those students, one, where they’re participating, and what effect that it’s actually having.

0:20:44.9 Pavani: And that is the future that I think is so important about what you all have designed in our building, is this idea of being able to disaggregate by specific populations and then re-aggregate and take a look at what’s the trend overall, and then how does this vary for good or for bad across different student groups and populations.

0:21:08.1 Brian: Yeah, and I’ll make one more comment really quickly, and it’s that I think this is a real game changer for smaller institutions who are financially and I think from a human resources perspective, really lame, because what this does is put a lot of information in an individual, supports person’s hands, that doesn’t require multiple hand-offs to multiple offices, it’s a really powerful tool for, I think, particularly for decentralized institutions as well as small institutions.

0:21:47.1 Pavani: Well, I know Zach had mentioned in terms of setting up your data ecosystem at the University of Montana to support students, that you have a number of important initiatives ahead, and I wanted to give you the space to comment on some of those. What does the future look like to you with regard to setting up the data infrastructure.

0:22:13.7 Zach: Would it be too corny to say the future is unlimited in, I mean our choices are unlimited.


0:22:21.3 Zach: There’s two useful dashboards that come to mind that I’m pretty excited about, and that’s gonna help us better understand important issues, and those two… It’s the student life cycle, success, fun, and a student-facing income and debt scenario planner and real quickly, the student life cycle is successful, that can show a present-day view of the success funnel from application through six-year graduation, then you can disaggregate it by race and ethnicity data, which is gonna be a very powerful view for us, and then the student-facing income and debt scenario Planner, and again, that’s tailored to students that would help our practitioners have meaningful financial and academic planning conversations with our Native American students. So through this project and then our other efforts that are under way, we’re bringing a lot of data into our edify data warehouse, so as the future continues to go, my vision would be to continue building out these dashboards to different sectors to make them actually see what we can do with this data, to go back to my earlier statement of the campaign or free of the data, we’re truly making the data available to our people, but again, kind of in part with that is continuing to establish strong data governance and also improving the trust center data, I think…

0:23:53.6 Zach: Brian, you’ve been here a while too, I think at one point in time, this goes back many years, but I think there was a mistrust of data where one data source told a story and another data source told a story and they didn’t meet or match, and so then there was always an argument going back and forth on who’s right. I feel like we’re at a place now where that’s not really an issue, I mean we have a centralized data repository that shares that data story, and then lastly, we’re looking at doing a lot of professional development and coupling it with the design work to help learn better as an organization and how to present and consume information to an easy to-digest format, ’cause I would love… Nothing I would love more is to begin eliminating these weekly or sometimes daily reports that are manual, so a staff person takes a data massages it and then gives it as a report in an email, and what I would love to do is start getting rid of those move them into dashboards and really show the value of edify and the power behind it.

0:25:06.8 Pavani: Yeah, it’s absolutely clear. There’s a lot of exciting work ahead. And I know I could keep talking about all of this and how it plays into really beginning to address and eventually erase equity gaps on your campus. So I’m super passionate about what it is that you all have been doing and what you’re poised and set up well to do in the future. And so in closing, I did wanna ask each of you why this data for student equity project has been personally compelling to you, so Zach maybe starting with you, you’ve shared your background as a college student in Montana, and I wonder how that experience informs your work today.

0:25:55.8 Zach: So I grew up in a small farming town in Dutton, Montana, it’s basically central of Montana, population about 250 people. So there weren’t many options or opportunities growing up, and so when I graduated high school, I came to the University of Montana, and in my opinion, others might disagree, but it helped really shape who I am today, and so after some years of working here and learning I found myself in the CIO position where I continue to plan in making an impact at UM. I’m 100% focused on impacting the student experience, and ’cause it wasn’t that long ago where I was a student, I remember coming into classrooms, the dorms, spotty Wi-Fi that I’m sure, many students experienced…

0:26:47.5 Zach: And I remember my frustrations as a student, and so if I could help alleviate these frustrations, I plan on doing that, and lastly, something I’m very proud of that we’ve done in IT is we’ve really worked hard on building career pipelines for IT student employees. So many of our new hires in IT, they are UM employees or UM graduates that’s worked with IT students, and someone who was once a student technician that worked the ranks up to the CIO. I think we’ve built a very strong program that demonstrates that you can build a career in IT as a student employee, work in your way in, so… Yeah, I think that kinda helps answer that.

0:27:32.8 Pavani: Yeah, that can be very inspiring for your students. Brian, same question to you, I know that you are a first-generation college student, and obviously also chosen to spend your career at helping remove roadblocks for students. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

0:27:50.6 Brian: Yeah, similar to Zach’s story, which is, I grew up in the East Kentucky coal fields, and I knew my option was either pursue a higher education or work in the mines and… And having seen my father grown old at that early age as a result of that work, I knew I didn’t want any part of that, and I knew I wanted something different, it’s a noble profession, but I wanted something different for myself, and so part of my passion comes out of my own experience, and I think anybody who’s into student success work, it’s personal. And so for me, it’s about leveraging our data to remove, again, barriers for students, and so what I mean by that is that these students come to campus and we heard this in the focus groups with this concern of, “Do I belong… Does this place want me and can I succeed here?” And what I wanna do in this project, and through these solutions, is to make sure that our processes and services are not the reason for a student to throw in the towel, that we make it as easy and as seamless and supportive and culturally responsive as possible.

0:29:07.6 Brian: So that our students can… That we help them actually go and fulfill their promise of giving back to their communities, and for me, it’s all about maximizing that student talent.

0:29:21.4 Pavani: And this is such a good note to end on. I did wanna give you another opportunity to share maybe one or two pieces of advice to other leaders in higher education who may be listening in and really thinking about how to prioritize historically underserved student populations, whether they are students who are first generation to college students who… Do not have a lot of family income to bring to the table, students who are from historically minorities groups in higher education and all sorts of other student populations. What advice would you give to other leaders who may really want to use data and support these students better in doing so, and I’ll open up to either one of you who may have some advice here.

0:30:11.4 Brian: Mine’s really quick it’s… Listen to your students, I mean your students will guide your data solutions. I find Higher Eds, where we’re a group of problem solvers and we’re impatient, we’re largely impatient group, and so I think we sometimes create solutions that then need to go in search of problems. And so what I would say is that to be really effective in this work, and what I found just so illuminating listening to the professionals that support Native American students and then community partners as well as the students themselves, was they will tell you what they need. And then you build solutions around the need. Period.

0:30:56.2 Zach: I can’t really add anything more on to that. That was perfectly summarized.

0:31:00.0 Pavani: Well, Zach and Brian, I just wanted to thank you for your time today and also to just share how fun it has been to be on this innovation journey with you both and with so many of your colleagues, that has truly been an honor and a professional highlight for me, I also wanted to thank our listeners for joining office hours with EAB today. Thank you everybody.

0:31:23.8 Zach: Thank you.

0:31:24.5 Brian: Thank you.

0:31:31.0 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we examine the role that technology can play in improving transfer pathways. Until then, thank you for your time.

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