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Tools to help map the context of the student experience

Tools to help map the context of the student experience

Blurred colorful globe zoomed in on the united states

Recently, I was asked to talk to a K-20 partnership group about ways to think about student success that might exist in a “bigger picture” context that might go beyond our educational systems. This audience included administrators at our university as well as school officials such as superintendents. I thought about some previous experiences that I had working in places outside Student Affairs, and how I might bring those experiences and tools into this partnership context. I also wondered about how the work that I had done previously might apply to the context of inquiry in Student Affairs, and discuss here some possible tools and approaches to add to our toolkits.

I explored the idea of opportunity and how that might affect the context of students in K-12 systems, but also who shows up for college. Higher education is not a system in a vacuum, it is affected by funding from the state (or somewhere), regional economic variables, and even the quality of schools from which some of our students are entering directly into our colleges and universities. I thought about how we might map where our students are from in a context that considers opportunity as a function of their community, and think about how that might affect how they experience higher education and what it may necessitate from Student Affairs to foster successful transitions and engagement. I knew of some work where Geographic Information Systems (GIS) had been used in university admissions work, but I was not familiar with this type of work being used within other areas of Student Affairs (and of course would love to hear examples if they are out there!).

Does this seem a little unclear? That’s good, actually. There are tools out there to help us consider how realities outside of higher education contribute to shaping who enters our hallowed halls (and who does not) in a way that is somewhat understandable. One tool I’ve found very useful is the Opportunity Index. This uses GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping technology to “map” opportunity across the United States. If you work in the US, give it a whirl: https://opportunityindex.org/. There’s also a county view, and some regional areas have even more detailed maps if you do some searching.

This tool defines opportunity as a function of economics, education, health, and community, and has variables associated with each area populated by publicly available data. Here’s the methodology for those who are interested. As you can see, the variables are very “big picture.” I was thinking about how we might use a tool like this, coupled with learning about where students are from, in thinking about how students might engage in co-curricular experiences. Or, more importantly, how we might do better outreach to students who come from environments that are different from the environment in which our college or university is located.

A quick caution - I believe that one’s community of origin does not solely dictate their outcomes when it comes to higher education. Work that talks about larger societal forces has been used in the past to place people into contexts in which there seems to be no escape, especially when people are from areas of lower opportunity and disparities are highlighted. However, the more we are able to think about the context of higher education more complexly, the better we might be able to meet students on terms in which they might expect given their community and prior educational experience, and the more tuned our support services can be to support these students given the educational opportunities they may not have experienced. We tend to generalize contexts in which we may know less about, and so, by understanding our students’ communities a tad better, we might be able to reach them in different ways that might foster their success on more individuated terms. If we take an asset-centered approach to understanding more about the community supports that existed (or did not exist) for students in their contexts prior to entering higher education, perhaps we can reach a variety of students in even more salient, meaningful, and supportive ways to help foster their success. This type of work could also be used to make a case for even more college supports being available for students across a variety of contexts, especially if that context did not have supports present.

We know, as well, from the National Center on Educational Statistics, that high school seniors do participate in “extracurricular” activities at high levels, but it varies by a number of variables (here’s a good table). We also know that first years in high school participate at different rates. However, we know that some things (such as being bullied) get in the way of students participating in these types of activities and affect their lives in ways that Student Affairs is well-equipped to handle and support students through.

If a student comes from a community or school system that did not have the types of supports we offer in Student Affairs or at the university, what might we be able to learn from these students about why they perhaps do not utilize our supports in a way that can foster their success as a student? To use my institution's state as an example (Oregon), how might we reach out to a student from a county in eastern Oregon which has high graduation rates from high school, but perhaps very few students from that community at our university, which happens to be on the west side of the state?

This is all to ask - how can geography and associated variables help us understand more about student experiences - and how we might introduce them to the variety of student experiences and engagement opportunities that we offer? If we find something like this useful, how do we insure that we don’t focus on geography so much that we miss the nuance of individual student experiences? Finally, how might this type of tool help us understand more about the higher education context (and beyond) in which assessment finds itself?


Daniel Newhart, Oregon State University

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