DENVER — Student data comes with big promise. With the right kind of data, colleges can understand what’s causing students to leave school without finishing a degree, which students could benefit from more academic advising, and where they should focus their recruiting efforts.
But getting access to this type of data — and using it in the right ways — can often be challenging. That was a key theme repeated by this year’s speakers and panelists at industry group Educause’s annual conference, hosted in Denver during the last full week of October.
“Many institutions are working to address issues like affordability, enrollment and graduation rates,” Susan Grajek, vice president for partnerships, communities and research at Educause, said during a speech. “Ongoing structural challenges can make this work difficult and expensive.”
College systems are often splintered, making it hard to share data across an institution. Administrators should also train employees about how to properly use student data while also protecting students' privacy. And higher education institutions face growing cybersecurity threats.
Below, we rounded up three important trends about using and securing data, according to conference speakers.
Improving student success
Georgia State University has developed a reputation for being at the forefront of using student data. The institution is a high-profile adopter of predictive analytics, which can help colleges target services like advising to students who display warning signs, such as missing classes.
But the university is also using data, including student grades, to improve its courses. Its learning design division recently created learning analytics dashboards to help instructors see how students are faring in their classes in real time.
The dashboards helped instructors and learning designers pinpoint why certain students were struggling. And they provide learning designers with a “nonintrusive, nonthreatening way” to reach out to faculty who might need help, said Justin Lonsbury, the university’s director of learning design.
In one example, they could see that a math instructor waited to grade a batch of quizzes until after the first test, leaving students without the opportunity to receive feedback and work on concepts they hadn’t mastered before their first large assessment. In another, they discovered that students tended to miss their assignments when they were due on Thursdays, spurring conversations about changing the deadline or reducing penalties for late work.
Using data responsibly and ethically
Student grades are just one example of the type of data that colleges are using to inform their decision-making. But colleges should also ensure that they are keeping this data private and minimizing risks when sharing students’ personal information across different divisions.
At Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland with about 17,000 students, various employees are required to take data ethics training to help them think about how student data should be handled. The training is part of a broader initiative to help employees learn how to use data to make better decisions.
The institution is also considering using predictive analytics on a larger scale, but administrators are speaking with students first before going that route, said John Hamman, the college’s chief analytics and insight officer.
Arizona State University is similarly putting students at the center of discussions about how the institution is using data. That includes asking students about how they want their data to be used, said Debra Hanken Kurtz, the university’s director of data governance.
As the university reaches out more to students to have these conversations — and as they see the payoff to how their data is used, including better grades — they will be more trusting of the institution, creating a “virtuous cycle,” she said.
Fending off cybersecurity threats
Cybersecurity threats are growing against higher education institutions, which hold troves of important personal data, such as social security numbers, names and addresses.
In the 2022 fiscal year, for instance, 409 cybersecurity incidents at colleges were reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office, according to Devin Bhatt, the division’s acting chief information security officer.
Ransomware attacks are a growing concern. During these incidents, hackers typically encrypt an institution’s data and ask for a ransom before they will decrypt it. Although many colleges pay the ransom, only a slim share recover all of their data afterward, according to a recent survey from Sophos, a cybersecurity firm.
These types of attacks are a growing share of incidents reported to Federal Student Aid. In fiscal 2022, there were 130 ransomware attacks reported to the office, accounting for 32% of overall incidents. That’s up from 126 the year before, when they accounted for 26% of overall incidents.
Bhatt shared several examples of colleges that paid the ransom to retrieve their data. But he urged college leaders to avoid taking this route.
“One thing people should remember: When you pay the ransom to the criminals, they get more resources, they get encouragement, they are going to attack more institutions,” Bhatt said. “There is no guarantee that you will get the keys or all the data back — it’s like gambling.”