Using Data To Drive Change

Author :
Ashley Hollister
November 8, 2023

In 2007, Akilah made some changes to its academic model, including introducing competency-based education and an Evening & Weekend program for working professionals. Many of these changes were driven by data around student needs and outcomes.

Akilah’s Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist, Ashley Hollister, played a pivotal role in collecting and analyzing the data that informed Akilah’s planning. Ashley spearheaded the institute’s first Monitoring & Evaluation Report which captured findings of a three-month evaluation that included alumnae surveys, focus groups, and interviews with community leaders, employers, and graduates.

The insights from the report led Akilah to launch an alumnae association and added more hands-on experiences to Akilah’s curriculum.  

Why is data collection important for Akilah’s model?

There is a lot of talk about the social economic impact of educating women and girls — our data allows us to measure this impact.

Without data, it is easy to make a lot of assumptions about what women want and need. But what they want and need is not stagnant. Our students’ needs change from when they start Akilah to when they graduate, and again when they launch their careers. For our model to have the best possible impact, we cannot just assume that we are doing the right thing and growing in the right direction. That is why it’s so important to collect information and data that is relevant to our students and reflects their realities at different stages in their experience with Akilah.

The most important thing we are doing is to assess what happens when a woman gets an education. What can she do with it and how does it affect her in terms of skills, confidence, and empowerment? Through our data, we are measuring what women’s economic empowerment looks like and how it can be achieved from the perspective of our students and alums.

“Without data, it is easy to make a lot of assumptions about what women want and need. But what they want and need is not stagnant.”

We can see from our data that education is an important component in overall economic empowerment. Education allows them to join the workforce — and to have agency to do work that is satisfying to them and to move up in their careers. It enables them to contribute in their families, their communities, and to the country’s economy at large. The decision-making power and sense of agency they gain through Akilah is something we are seeing and testing through our data.

In addition, our data also shows us the limitations that our students and alums are facing. It can give us answers to question like, ‘Why are they not advancing as fast as their male peers?’

How do we collect data?

We focus on both quantitative data and qualitative data. The quantitative data gives us knowledge about things such as their demographic background, job placement, and income levels.

We put an especially big focus on our qualitative data, where we ask our students and alums to tell their own stories. We make sure to meet them on their own terms, which often means that we go out in their communities or to their workplaces. We ask them to give us information, but at the same time we make it a high priority to respect their schedules and their realities and to not burden them with data collection.

Many of these women and girls have so many other responsibilities taking up their time; they have families, demanding jobs, and a lot of responsibilities in their communities, so we make sure to respect their time.

We are proud of what we have been able to accomplish by meeting these women on their own terms and allowing them to tell their own stories.

How do we use the knowledge we get from our data?

We use the information to improve our programs for the next cohorts of Akilah students.

For instance, a few years back our data showed us that our graduates needed more practical skills and experience when entering the workforce. That knowledge inspired us to integrate more practical skills into the curriculum.

Every year, we see how leadership skills are the most important. These skills enable students to trust and advocate for themselves and to know their responsibilities and work at their workplace. Through their feedback, we know that leadership is a component we need to keep focusing on and improving as we move forward.

Our data also shows us the longterm support systems we need to provide to make sure our graduates and alums succeed. For instance, we have identified the importance of maintaining and developing professional networks. Based on that knowledge, we are launching our Akilah Alumnae Association, which will allow our previous students to benefit from each other and their networks.

(This post is based on Ms. Hollister's work with Akila. She conducted the institute’s first rigorous study of alumnae outcomes.)