Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Q&A with David Mahan, head of CPE's data and advanced analytics team

May 13, 2020

David Mahan

With 15 years of executive leadership in data and analytics under his belt, David Mahan, Ph.D., came to CPE from Manhattan College in 2017. Since that time, he has led the enhancement of CPE's information presence by launching the state's postsecondary education interactive data center, which includes interactive tools that track campus and state progress on key metrics. Performance on the metrics help guide policy decisions toward CPE's goal to have 60% of Kentuckians with a quality degree or credential by the year 2030. A native of Louisville, Mahan earlier served as the director of institutional effectiveness and research at Bellarmine University.

Some of our readers may not know that data collection and accountability are a big part of CPE's role in coordinating higher education. What kind of information do you collect, and what are some of the challenges?

I am so blessed to lead an amazing team of IT professionals here at the Council. We collect, validate and warehouse over two million student records each year. Every record is treated with great care to assure data integrity, security and privacy.

We work directly with eight public universities, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) serving 16 colleges, 18 Kentucky not-for-profit institutions and 71 CPE licensed proprietary and other private institutions.

The data we collect includes student enrollment, degrees earned, financial aid, standardized exam files, coursework and grades, to name only a few. We also collect institutional summary information in areas such as finance, facility and land holdings.

But the volume and efficiency is not the only amazing part of our work. I am still amazed that the integrity of every record is maintained. For example, our team often calls campus data staff to correct one student record, to determine if a student should be coded as a transfer and first-time student based on discrepancies from previous CPE records. That's how meticulous we are. My job is pure joy - to have this level of efficiency and quality, which plays out for better quality in our research and analysis of Kentucky higher education policy.

I can't say enough for our campus partners. They make all of our work possible and are terrific and competent colleagues. I have worked on campuses from Kentucky to the Bronx. The Kentucky postsecondary data system is second to none.

That's an astounding amount of work. Coming from a campus environment, you've now seen data collection from both sides. How does your campus experience help you with leading data collections at CPE?

This is such an important question. Yes, I pride myself in being both a person who once submitted the data files to the CPE from a Kentucky campus and now the leader who collects the information for the state. I often say, "I feel your pain," because I can truly appreciate the difficulty of the work our campuses put into their submissions. Ensuring clean records is tedious, complicated and crazy time consuming.I can't say enough for our campus partners. They make all of our work possible and are terrific and competent colleagues. I have worked on campuses from Kentucky to the Bronx. The Kentucky postsecondary data system is second to none.

Let's switch gears. There is a big push by the state's policy leaders to increase the numbers of Kentuckians with undergraduate certificates as a way to increase the state's workforce capacity. This is sort of new to the state's postsecondary education data world. How are we gauging the number of Kentuckians with a certificate, given this isn't yet a census element and that certificates can be earned outside of higher education?

With "great difficulty," as my father liked to say! We are working with a team across multiple state agencies to enhance our tracking and assessment systems inside and outside of the education sector. It is a tall order but there is new momentum because of the importance of the work.

The good news is that educational institutions and private/public sector employers are working more closely than ever to better prepare Kentucky residents with the skills and knowledge needed to meet critical workforce areas. This will be more important than ever as we begin recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Beginning with leaders from K-12 education, who oversee pathways to higher education and employment, but also community and technical college presidents, university faculty and staff members, state workforce and education personnel, to name only a few. However, because these learning experiences live inside and outside the classroom and workplace, we as assessment leaders are trying to keep pace with the explosion of short-term credentials, badging, apprenticeships and internships, and other micro-credentials. To evaluate our progress with the goal of better preparing Kentucky residents, it will take all parties coming together, and staying in synch as we continue to clarify definitions and requirements for certificates in terms of quality needed by the workforce.

For now, our policymakers can visit - shameless plug - CPE's Data Center at We have a wealth of information there that can be filtered in a variety of ways that will inform users about the certificates our institutions are awarding.

With the recent progress report and new engineering study behind you, what are some of the other big data projects you are working on for CPE that will be of interest to our readers?

Our CPE research agenda is packed! Prioritization is a big challenge. I am excited about our upcoming dual enrollment research. We need to determine if beginning college coursework in high school is worth the investment for our students and state tax dollars. Are outcomes better for students who begin college coursework earlier? Early returns are in and the answer is a resounding "yes!" But we must determine if dual enrollment is helpful for our most disadvantaged students who have the greatest need for a postsecondary credential. We are also working closely with our partner organization, KYSTATS, to release an enhanced version of the Return on Investment (ROI) report. The first version was released in late 2019. We received much encouragement to continue this research focused on the value proposition of Kentucky higher education.

Besides providing information in the Data Center, your staff also fill lots of data requests, especially during Kentucky's legislative session. What are some of the topics state legislators have been asking about lately?

The important topic in Kentucky and across the nation is K-12 teacher shortages. They are looking for answers to such questions as, "Is there a pipeline issue for college recruitment staff?" Or, "Is the teacher shortage retention issue after being hired?" or "Do teacher salaries and retirement systems impact recruitment and retention?" These questions remain critical to our legislators and education leaders throughout the state.

Another important topic pertains to students' backgrounds and experiences outside the classroom: How do first-generation students, often from low-income families of color, navigate the education pathways to employment and middle-income salary levels? Such important and complicated questions, which need many talented researchers, administrators and faculty members to address.

New legislation was passed in 2020 requiring us to more effectively share education costs and employment outcomes with Kentucky students. This is an exciting time to work in Kentucky's higher education data systems. I am blessed to have such a talented team to lead at the CPE and talented colleagues on-campus and in other state agencies.

Here's a bonus question for our curious readers: If you had one wish, regarding data collection, what would that be?

My wish is that folks remember why we are doing this work. I often say, "There is no assessment without action." We collect, clean, store large volumes of data and build elaborate reporting analytics, all for actions to help Kentucky residents succeed. Otherwise, we should not do the work. Too often in higher education, we look at big picture data points, but we fail to see that the actions typically come from a closer look at the academic department. The question is, "How do we support our faculty members' efforts to prepare Kentucky students for work and life after graduation?" We have data that can help!

Last Updated: 7/21/2021