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Why Analytics Can Save Higher Education

Access to data and analytics has grown exponentially over the past decade for many organizations — including institutions of higher education. Greater access to data and analytic tools can provide college and university leaders with the information they need to solve some of higher education’s most pressing challenges: declining student enrollment, inefficient resource allocation, stagnant graduation rates, and changing funding models.

However, the change-making potential of analytics remains largely unrealized at most colleges and universities. Institution-wide adoption is slow, or lacks appropriate financial or leadership support; results are not shared or campus stakeholders don’t understand how to link results to action. 

How can college and university leaders more effectively harness the promise and power of analytics to tackle big challenges, and take advantage of emerging opportunities?

Saving higher education

In a shared call to action, the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), EDUCAUSE, and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) urge higher education leaders to act now to better leverage data and analytics for the benefit of students and their institutions. The joint statement “Analytics can save higher education. Really.” emphasizes six core principles that lay the groundwork for effective implementation, and sustained use of data and analytics as part of a data-informed institutional culture.

  1. Go big: Make an institutional commitment to analytics. 
  2. Invest what you can: You can’t afford not to. 
  3. Analytics is a team sport: Build your dream team. 
  4. Analytics has real impact on real people: Avoid the pitfalls. 
  5. Prepare: Be ready for some detours on the road to success. 
  6. Tick-tock, tick-tock: The time to act is now. 

The joint statement explains that leveraging data and analytics for better decisions requires collaboration. Implementing analytics throughout an institution will likely result in a few bumps along the way, so those who lead implementation — including senior leaders, and the faculty and staff on the front lines who are directly educating and supporting students — need to be prepared. Only then can an institution develop the technical infrastructure, processes, and resources to produce accessible, high-quality data, and to educate users on its effective and ethical use. 

In action

Some forward-looking institutions are already using data and analytics as strategic assets to transform their institutional cultures, and increase the success of all students.

The University of North Texas (UNT), for example, uses data, analytic tools, and predictive analytics to help with the institution’s strategic priorities. In response to a year with little to no growth in new student enrollment, the school’s data, analytics, and institutional research office partnered with colleagues from the enrollment management and finance offices to examine how to optimize and incentivize more potential students who were accepted to UNT as new students. 

After a rigorous analysis and careful consideration of potential solutions by a team of stakeholders from across the institution, new strategies were implemented in the next academic year. Results included the largest freshman class in UNT history and a 3 percent growth in overall student enrollment.

“At a time when higher education is already beginning to see pressures around enrollment, our experience is that analytics can and did help us succeed,” said Jason Simon, UNT’s assistant vice president of data, analytics, and institutional research. “But that is because we chose to embrace its capabilities. UNT is now enrolling over 39,000 students for the first time in our history. Ultimately, analytics was a major element of this success.”

Leveraging technology

In New York, Ithaca College is embracing a data-informed institutional culture. Since 2016, Ithaca has transformed its institutional research and information technology offices from disconnected functions with little interaction, to closely aligned strategic partners under new and future-focused leadership. The two offices are now working together to advance cutting-edge technology that includes data storage infrastructure with the tools necessary to create predictive models, and machine learning mechanisms to perform predictive analysis in real time for users. 

Beyond the technology, Ithaca also invested in data privacy, a critical feature of the growing use of analytics. A data inventory and security audit allowed the college to better understand what data it has, where data is located, how data is secured, and how the college should protect it. A campus-wide, two-tiered data governance system ensures secure, accurate, and accessible data for the college community.

“Professionals within institutional research provide a unique function as ‘data sense-makers’ and should be the center of data-informed actions,” said Yuko Mulugetta, chief analytics officer at Ithaca College, “including asking mission-critical questions, developing advanced models, interpreting analysis results correctly, revealing data insights, and telling data-informed stories to the campus.” 

Learning from data

These data-informed stories and interpretations illustrate potential opportunities, inequities, and gaps that might exist at other colleges and universities. The stories data tell allow individuals across an institution to better understand and prepare for future trends and changes that influence the success of their students and institutions. 

Higher education leaders can make a difference by actively embracing the power and promise of data and analytics for better decision-making, and empowering others across their institutions to use the information as well. Data and analytics are powerful tools, and using them properly can truly create a brighter future for higher education.

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