I Know I Can has made dramatic changes to its organization and how it helps students in the Columbus City Schools pursue and complete a college education. The change is largely due to data management.
Executive Director Katina Fullen says nonprofits typically don’t have funds to invest in data management software or time to evaluate that data. Most resources are directed to the people it serves.
But without data management, it’s hard to determine what is working.
“We weren’t afraid of the data, but I know that there are organizations that do fear the data and are fearful of what they’ll find,” Fullen says. “It’s the truth, but it can be scary to think that you’ve been doing great work, and then look at data that may tell you the opposite.”
I Know I Can didn’t let fear stand in the way of learning more about what it would take to get students in and through college.
“By being confident enough in the process, we have learned more than we ever expected about our work, about the students’ and families’ needs and about how we go about our business,” she says.
For example, using data, surveys and community conversations, Fullen says I Know I Can decided to expand its core service — college advising. Splitting the cost with the school district, the nonprofit went from providing a college adviser one day a week to a full-time adviser in all 20 high schools.
Growing the effectiveness
In I Know I Can’s last strategic planning process, Fullen says they identified data management as the largest issue. They wanted to gather and store data, while developing a dashboard and database to help with decision-making.
At the time, I Know I Can only tracked inputs and outputs. It could say it helped X students complete scholarship applications and that X students received a grant in a given year. It couldn’t tell potential funders, its board or the school district if those students actually graduated college.
“I could come to you and show you 10 very successful students, and I could give you qualitative data and great stories, but I couldn’t give you the numbers,” Fullen says.
Thanks to an unexpected bequest, I Know I Can used a little more than $500,000 to develop a dashboard and database in an 18-month period.
Now, I Know I Can can not only track college enrollment, persistence and completion, but also look at the common characteristics of students. Do they come from a certain high school, have a certain GPA or have a certain number of one-on-one advising sessions? Then, Fullen says, I Know I Can will use that to ensure more students have similar success.
But it has taken a shift in thinking.
I Know I Can has two staff members who focus on data full time, while helping advisers understand how to use it to make real-time decisions on what programs to offer to which students at which time.
“For individuals, who are in the nonprofit world because they love direct service, sometimes this can be a tough part of the job because you want to just be with the people you’re there to support and help and advocate — not doing data entry or not analyzing data,” Fullen says.
Discovering the unexpected
Despite the learning curve, the investment has already paid off.
Fullen says the nonprofit spends about $1.2 million annually on college grants, and by looking at those grant recipients, it found a problem it didn’t even know existed.
College enrollment summer melt is when a student is on track for college in June but doesn’t show up on campus. Fullen says I Know I Can learned it had a 26 percent summer melt rate for grant recipients.
“Those numbers are typical nationwide, but we didn’t know that they were that high for our students,” she says. “So, these are students who we worked with, one on one, and they still were not going to college in the fall.”
Fullen says that led them to develop a texting campaign. The idea was to reach out to grant recipients over the summer and ask things like “Do you have your classes scheduled?” or “Have you received a financial aid bill from your university?”
“We were not prepared for the response rate. After the first text message went out to a group of about 400 students, we received almost 1,200 responses,” she says.
By the end of the campaign, Fullen says the melt dropped from 26 to 16 percent — and that was just one texting campaign that was put together quickly.
“It’s because we had data that we haven’t had in the past,” she says. “And not only did we have data, but it was data that told us things that we didn’t even know and didn’t even think to ask at the time.”
This summer, I Know I Can will broaden its texting campaign to every Columbus graduate who plans to go to college, not just its grant recipients.
“We are more confident in what we are doing,” Fullen says, “and it’s allowed us to really focus in on our core programs and do what we do and do it the best we can.”
Brought to you in partnership with The Pillar Foundation and Medical Mutual