My role as a researcher provides me great opportunities - observing Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) across three campuses, interfacing with Scholars and program partners, and working closely with the RFS team. I also have a responsibility to advocate for the benefit of research and evaluation in the pre-college field – one that often doesn’t have “extra” resources to dedicate to research. So, why focus on program evaluation and what’s the benefit of building it into your program?
As we have learned with RFS, infusing research into your program has tremendous benefits. First, it tells the story about what your program is accomplishing. Whether analyzing interviews, administering a satisfaction survey, or comparing control and experimental groups, evaluation data can be used to strengthen your case to potential partners, funders, and supporters about your program’s value. For example, RFS is proud of its “100% retention” stat; in districts where high school dropout rates are of concern, 100% of all Scholars (and there are nearly 1,000 of them) are still enrolled in school and on the path toward graduation. Coupled with additional outcome data and information about the program, RFS has used this statistic to raise over 3 million dollars. Many funders will tell you that a program being data-informed is a huge benefit and something that can set the program apart from others.
Second, data from program evaluation can be an invaluable tool to help refine your program. End of year surveys can give you information about what went well and what didn’t as you design the following year’s program, and systematically tracking something like SAT performance can help you determine whether your SAT-Prep class actually increased scores. For even more bang for your buck, collecting “real time” data can be used to make mid-course (as opposed to end of year) corrections. RFS has implemented this strategy: collecting grades by marking period (rather than waiting for final grades) allows RFS staff to provide resources such as tutoring to Scholars mid year -- before it is too late to improve their grades.
It is not always easy to design and execute a program evaluation, and all programs and their researchers face challenges along the road. But, if you think of program data as a trusted advisor raising tough questions, giving you ideas about how to potentially tweak your program, and being a cheerleader helping you garner support for your hard work, it can be a huge asset with a return that far outweighs the investment.
Thanks for reading. Next time: What are outcomes?