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Home » Future of Higher Education » Why Universities Need to Change Their Financial Models

Real-time data and visualization tools are helping universities navigate a sea-change in financial models and enrollment.

Universities have been adapting traditional business models for years, but the global pandemic accelerated these trends. A recent survey conducted by Salesforce found that 45 percent of universities are implementing new business models.

Saint Mary’s University in Halifax is an example of a school that had to adapt as a result of the pandemic. “We had to move to a completely online model,” says Darrell Rooney, the school’s senior director of financial services, planning & analysis. “We had no idea how that was going to impact enrollment. But worse than that, we had no way of quantifying what registration looked like until the term started.”

Shifting focus

That lack of clarity meant the university couldn’t predict tuition revenue. “There was always this lag between enrollment data and the financial piece,” explains Tracey MacDonald, director of institutional data analysis and planning at Saint Mary’s. “So, we said, ‘Okay, how do we fix that?’”

Shifting their focus to a course-based revenue model powered by Vena Complete Planning, a business planning platform leveraging a native Excel interface, gave them the necessary insights. “We knew that anything involving students being on campus was going to be impacted,” notes Rooney. “But we didn’t have a sense of where tuition was going to be until we developed a model in Vena to calculate tuition on a weekly basis. We never had that before.”

Vena gave Rooney the ability to build his budget based on course registrations. “We’re able to now track actual course registrations against budget,” he says. “We would have had to calculate everything manually in the past, but now Vena is doing all that.”

Visualizing data

Modern platforms like Vena Complete Planning allow universities to share data more effectively. “I’m creating a data hub,” says MacDonald. “I see it as different visions of presentation versus just ‘access.’ I can give customized access to various departments so they can slice and dice and filter and do their own thing with the data.”

The visualization capabilities provided by Vena’s platform, which includes an integration with Power BI, are a key element to this new approach to data and financial planning and modeling. “It’s amazing how much more easily digestible it is in a visualization, as opposed to the tables I used to put out,” notes MacDonald. “It becomes easier to use in decision-making.”

That ease of use is crucial because there is more data than ever before, including real-time data on enrollment and tuition driving weekly reports. MacDonald uploads a data file into the university’s Vena system on Sunday, and a report goes out on Monday morning. And since they’ve been doing this for more than a year now, they can also analyze year-on-year trends.


“One of the things I think universities do is spend a lot of time compiling data — and not a great amount of time analyzing data,” Rooney notes. “What we see when we go to conferences are people looking for reporting solutions, they’re looking for analytical solutions, but there aren’t a great number of them out there.” 

Rooney has set up a financial planning and analysis team at Saint Mary’s, and he sees data analytics as crucial for all universities going forward. “We have a lot of data — a ton of it,” adds MacDonald. “The key is communication, taking all of those pieces and then making sure the right people have that information. Because if no one’s utilizing the data for decision making, then that’s problematic.”

MacDonald believes this change in how universities approach data around finances and enrollment along with tools like Vena will continue to trend. “I do think it’s going to raise the bar. The more data that we show to our stakeholders, the more they want,” she notes.

To learn more about how Vena can aid your planning, visit

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