Using Data for Effective Strategic Planning
To remain effective, prevention programs have to remain up-to-date with on-campus issues among current students. That makes prevention programming an ongoing cycle of assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation.
What's Your Problem?
Good strategic planning for alcohol, drug, and violence prevention begins with identifying the current problems on your campus. Information about national trends among college students can help you know what to look for, but every school is unique. You'll need to investigate the climate in your own community.
According to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, you need to know not only who is drinking, but also when, where, and why they are doing so. Are there events or times of year when your students are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior? Are there locations or organizations that are focal points for excessive drinking, drug abuse, or assaults? What consequences do your students experience from their own drinking or drug abuse? What consequences do they experience from the behavior of their peers?
Talk to people who have direct experience with student activities and their consequences: staff and administrators from student affairs, health services, and residential life staff; academic advisors and faculty; and representatives from student organizations, including fraternities and sororities. Campus and local police are another important resource for both statistical data and observations about current illegal or disruptive activity. A task force with members from all of these constituencies can be a great resource throughout the strategic planning process.
Your planning will benefit from numerical data: it's the clearest way to prioritize problems and to assess results. Assessments like those in MyStudentBody can tell you how prevalent high-risk behaviors are among your students, which demographic groups are most at risk, and which beliefs and perceptions may be contributing to your students' behavior. MyStudentBody's follow-up assessment can provide a snapshot of how student behavior and perceptions about drugs, alcohol, and violence have changed after students have been on campus for a few months.
Also, take a look at data from earlier and ongoing prevention initiatives. What strategies have been successful in the past? Which ones don't appear to have had much effect? How much can your data tell you about why these strategies haven't worked? For instance, would your prevention messages be more effective if they reached more students? Would your existing sanctions be more effective if they were enforced more consistently?
The information that you gather provides the basis for setting the goals of your strategic plan.
Where Can We Improve?
Once you've defined your problems, the main work of a strategic plan is to set the goals—both short-term and long-term—for your prevention effort. Goals, in planning parlance, must be specific and measurable. It's part of defining a goal to establish how you will measure your success in reaching it. A strategic plan is a blueprint for major change that's made up of several incremental steps. Your long-term objective may be qualitative—for example, to improve student health and academic success by reducing alcohol and other drug abuse on campus. But a goal needs to be something concrete and specific enough that you can tell if and when it's been achieved.
Your statistical data can help you to focus your efforts on achievable milestones. For example, while your objective may be to reduce hazardous drinking on campus, a measurable goal is reducing the number of students who drink on Thursday nights by 15%. String together enough of these well-defined goals and you will be on the way to your objective.
Measurable goals can be outcomes, such as a decline in student drinking rates; or they can be steps in a process, such as reaching more students with your prevention messages.
For example, you likely want to reduce heavy drinking among freshmen. Studies have found that perceptions play a major role in how much students drink. Assessments like those contained in MyStudentBody can indicate how much your incoming students believe their peers are drinking, and whether that amount has been overestimated. A measurable process goal would be to increase the number of students that you reach with the correct information.
At a later stage in your program, you can evaluate whether getting the information out has, in fact, reduced drinking among your freshmen. Raising the number of students who receive prevention information is a measurable step along the path to the larger goal of reduced freshman drinking.
Choosing Evidence-Based Programs: Impact and Implementation
Once you've defined your problems and your goals, you can set priorities and choose methods. In choosing which goals to address first and what tools you'll use to address them, consider both the potential impact of your choices and the ease (or difficulty) of implementation. Will a certain measure find support among students, staff, faculty, and others in the community? Are there potential allies in the administration or among student organizations?
Your task force can provide insight on which problems are the most visible, while your statistical data can show which issues affect the greatest number of students. You may also want to give high priority to a few problems that have relatively easy or quick solutions; in this way, you can generate positive results that will help build momentum for longer-term (or more controversial) changes.
You can enhance both the credibility and effectiveness of your prevention-marketing efforts by choosing specific interventions and programs that are based on valid research. Plenty of resources for investigating successful interventions and programs are available through the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) College Drinking : Changing the Culture website and through the site of the U.S. Department of Education's Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention. The Higher Education Center website provides a monthly listing of recently-published research studies on prevention.
To help you investigate prevention resources (such as MyStudentBody) that are supported by research, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) maintains a searchable database at the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) website.
Evaluating Your Results
In addition to helping you identify targets for your prevention programs, your initial data-gathering will provide a baseline against which you can assess the programs' effectiveness in reducing risky student behavior and its consequences. When you implement any new policy or program, a preliminary assessment will give you a baseline for your initiative; subsequent surveys will allow you to track your progress. For example, MyStudentBody provides a standard assessment that can track changes on your campus over time; its follow-up assessment allows you to track changes within a specific population of students. Both measurements can be useful for evaluating the impact of your prevention programming.
Remember, too, what scientists say: "Any result is a good result." If your data show that one program is not working as well or as quickly as anticipated, or is having less effect on a particular demographic group within your student body, that information is a valuable guide for your next round of efforts.
A Final Note: Share Your Process, Share Your Results
Effective prevention programming requires cooperation and buy-in from the whole campus community. Use your task force members to open the process to their constituencies; ask for input on proposed policies and actions, and make sure to communicate changes early and often. Share not only the details of the policy or program, but also the data and reasoning behind the choices.
Prevention efforts may generate resistance when they reveal the extent of drug, alcohol, or violence issues on campus. Sometimes administrators or community members will mistake exposing a problem for creating it. For instance, if your program includes more effective enforcement of the school's alcohol policies, it's likely to result in more disciplinary sanctions -- at least until your students recognize the new level of enforcement. It may be that your program gets the blame in some quarters for an existing (hidden) problem that it has made more visible.
That's why it's important not only to have and use your data, but to share it. Document the magnitude of the problem from the outset, both during the decision-making phase of your strategic planning, and throughout the process of implementing change. Share the data when your campus makes measurable progress toward each goal. If the number of disciplinary cases goes up, you may be able to show that the number or severity of alcohol-related health service visits, or some other significant marker, has gone down. Such data allows you not only the ability to track -- but also to demonstrate -- the value and effectiveness of your prevention programs.
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