Jacksonville State University Dives Deep Into Data for Change Management

JSU Change Management


Within our community we focus on creating a culture of analytics. The change management necessary to make that happen is something we are learning, seeing and sharing in real time. Dr. Alicia Simmons, Vice President for Research, Planning and Collaboration for Jacksonville State University in northeast Alabama recently shared some examples of what she and her colleagues at JSU are doing in change management to create a robust culture of analytics to improve student success.


Jacksonville State University was among the early joiners to our community, partnering with Civitas Learning in the fall of 2013. As such, they are no strangers to the use of analytics in higher education, and have been actively gleaning insights and affecting policy and practice change on those insights.

Dr. Simmons has been thoughtfully introducing a shift from relying solely on descriptive analytics to embracing predictive and prescriptive analytics across the institution. She and her team have been actively using the Civitas Learning platform and Illume® application.

Illume is a powerful application, giving institutions the ability to dive deep into their data and surface insights and unseen correlations. This level of data access provides profound context for understanding the dynamics of student characteristics, policies, and institutional initiatives on student persistence.

What follows are some interesting practices from JSU as Simmons and team actively educate their community on the use of analytics, and integrate that knowledge into their practice across the institution and state to meet their goal for increased enrollments, retention and student success.


“On July 1, JSU named Dr. John M. Beehler our 12th president,” said Simmons. Beehler comes to JSU with a strong business background and is very interested in the institution’s growing use of analytics. “One of the first large projects we’ll be undertaking with him is writing and adopting our next five-year strategic plan,“ said Simmons. “To be certain that the insights gained from Illume and other apps are integrated into the planning process, we are kicking off the strategic planning process by having a half-day session on “Understanding the Usefulness of Predictive Analytics.” The session is hosted by Rob Robinson, the Senior Director of Partner Success at Civitas Learning. “So many of our cabinet members have used descriptive analytics for years in their work where we would have to wait a long time for the data, and then when it became available determine what was actionable, then continue to wait a long to see the outcomes of any actions taken,” said Simmons. “By giving them access to the platform, Illume, and our years of behavioral data, the Cabinet can move forward with solid solutions in real time.”

An example of the kinds of insights useful to the Cabinet for determining policy and practice is the work JSU has done with a scholarship program designed to boost enrollments. Once they implemented the Civitas Learning platform and deployed the Illume application, they discovered that a number of students given priority for admissions and scholarships based upon their ACT scores were transferring out to other institutions prior to earning credentials — using this institution as a stepping stone. More importantly, Illume insights uncovered that at their institution, high school class percentile was a better indicator of persistence for students than ACT scores.

Today, JSU is re-evaluating their admissions and financial aid policy to make changes in the way they evaluate student applications and allocate valuable scholarship dollars in order to hit their target enrollment rates.


Moving from placing the data in the hands of the President’s Cabinet, on to the next tier of administration, Simmons and team are introducing predictive analytics insights to the University Council twice a month. “This is a great opportunity for us to bring an insight from Illume to each meeting and share what we found, and to elaborate on the questions the finding is causing us to ask, and explore what actions we are taking in deeper data dives. This step will bring the data to the hands of vice-presidents, directors, and deans, as well as some faculty and students,” said Simmons. One example of an insight Simmons shared with the University Council is plot of graduate student average credits earned in the previous year. It indicates that graduate students taking more than four credit hours are more likely to persist than graduate students taking three or fewer credit hours. This insight provides an opportunity for faculty and advisors to act by encouraging graduate students to take an additional course, and invest more in their commitment to graduate with a degree. “It could have an impact on up to 400 of our graduate students who are not persisting,” according to Simmons. As a comparison, undergraduate students taking more than six credit hours are more likely to persist than those taking six or fewer.



Perhaps the greatest key to unlocking the power of Illume is when universities place their team through Illume Power User Training, as JSU has done. This work builds a cadre of trained users in varying roles across the institution who can not only pull out data, but also build narratives and craft strategies for taking action using these insights. Illume Power User training is designed to empower users to become focused change agents for student success. Several members of JSU have completed this training and are now forming a working group with a goal to meet weekly in 2016 to share insights and learnings. “I’m excited about this group. Our Power Users include those people who are working most directly with our students in academic support. It’s incredibly important for them to have this knowledge,” said Simmons. “They are using some of the insights for our grant work, identifying students who fall into a category once called the ‘murky middle’. It’s not murky when you have insights,” said Simmons. “It’s important that we look at these student populations who aren’t at-risk and aren’t top achievers – there are so

“They are using some of the insights for our grant work, identifying students who fall into a category once called the ‘murky middle’. It’s not murky when you have insights.” – Alicia Simmons.

many resources given to help both ends of the student spectrum, but the middle students often get overlooked. We can learn more about them, and help them succeed at higher levels, and persist,” said Simmons. “Using the data gives us confidence we are putting our grant money into the right resources where it will make a measurable difference, rather than blindly guessing.” Simmons, who has been very successful at garnering grants for the institution, including leading their large CORE grant project, says the data also helps in grant reporting, which in turn, helps attract additional grant funding. In the last two years Simmons has brought JSU about $30 million in federal and private grant funding for CORE.


At JSU, there is a strong focus on boosting enrollments. “When you want to raise enrollments you don’t just focus on recruitment,” said Simmons, “you focus on retention. As we worked with the Illume app we uncovered some interesting insights about our non-traditional students.”

“When you want to raise enrollments you don’t just focus on recruitment, you focus on retention. “ – Alicia Simmons

“The average age of JSU students is 25-years-old. In the last ten years, we tried to serve our non-traditional students by offering more online education. As a result, 46 percent of our students are registered for at least one online course. When we dove into the data around these enrollments with Illume, we used the paired predictor plot (shown below) and discovered students younger than 24 with GPA of 3.4 or higher have much higher persistence than students older than 24 with a GPA of less than 3.4 – even though we had been designing the online courses for with non-traditional, adult students in mind,” said Simmons.


“JSU is now investing heavily in a course redesign focused on hybrid courses, which research and theory supports can help non-traditional students be more successful and feel more engaged academically. Right now, we have 12 percent of our students taking hybrid courses, and 43 percent of our students taking 100 percent online. We want to flip those percentages with a greater number taking hybrid.”


In addition to putting data in the hands of the President’s Cabinet, the University Council, faculty, staff, and students – and building an understanding of how to use it effectively in change management –  Simmons wants to bring analytics into the conversation with the public. “Every university has a fact book,” said Simmons. “I want ours to integrate analytics and insights into the copy in the book. So, when we talk about first generation students for example, we can include an insight about them, or when we talk about how many transfer students we have, we can share data about that population. “ Her goal to is to take actionable insights and data and make it available to prospective students, media, parents and the general public by weaving it into the Fact Book.


The commitment is paying off. JSU has increased retention from 68% to 74% in five years. And Simmons has recently been recognized for her work with an appointment to the Digital Learning Study Commission by Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh. She will represent Alabama’s four-year institutions on the board, alongside other education and government leaders from throughout the state. “I’m very excited about sharing what we are learning about analytics in student success with the state,” said Simmons. “You know when you talk about changing culture, you have to be sure you have a shared language and understanding of where you want to go. Change management literature asserts that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail. We want to be sure we are in the 30 percent that succeeds.”


Alicia Simmons

Alicia Simmons is  Vice President for Research, Planning and Collaboration at Jacksonville State University in northeast Alabama.

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