Colleges and universities are making progress in their use of data to steer business decisions, boost efficiencies and improve their ability to meet market expectations. Historically, data practices in higher education have lagged behind other industries, particularly in their ability to extract real business value from data. That’s changing as more institutions seek to apply data insights to solve problems and uncover opportunities.
This spring, 150 higher ed leaders — mostly C-suite executives at four-year institutions — shared their data uses in a survey by TouchNet and Higher Ed Dive’s studioID. Survey findings reveal how they’ve approached data in the past year, as well as common gaps and wish list items.
What do higher ed leaders want data to do for them?
The role of data in business, financial or operational decisions varies widely from institution to institution. While some survey respondents rely heavily on data insights, others still lean largely on instinct or experience. For most respondents, it’s a combination of those elements:
- It’s a mix: Data insights, hunches and educated guesses all play a role in steering our decisions. (43%)
- We let data guide our decisions, ensuring next steps are rooted in evidence. (29%)
- Our decisions are a result of peer input and experience. (21%)
- Our decisions are based largely on instinct, personal experience or preferences. (21%)
Data gaps and wish list capabilities
What’s missing from the data that higher ed leaders have today? Respondents said access to real-time insights in the following areas would “drastically improve” their ability to meet performance goals:
- Campus-wide financial data (50%)
- Trending behaviors (e.g., attendance, transactions, building access, other tracked behaviors) (49%)
- Enrollment and retention (48%)
- Preferences/behaviors/trends of various audience/student segments (45%)
- Event metrics (attendance, ticket sales) (41%)
- Campus-wide resource availability, check-in/out trends (39%)
- Class attendance/check-ins (39%)
- Feedback to surveys, polls (37%)
- Building usage/access (37%)
- Health services usage/patterns (29%)
- Merchandise sales (28%)
- Vaccination or testing compliance (26%)
- Dining (what/when/where students dine on campus) (16%)
Altogether, if leaders could choose three areas to improve data capture, access or reporting next month, most would choose enrollment and admissions (44%), financial services (41%) and student engagement (35%).
Barriers to gleaning more business value from data
Incomplete or disconnected data remains a barrier to gleaning more value from data. Eight in 10 respondents (83%) said it would be “very” or “extremely” helpful to have a single source of truth for unified data across systems and departments. Just two in 10 (18%) say they have that capability today. Additionally, 80% said two other capabilities would be “very” or “extremely” helpful: (1) mobile access to data insights and (2) the ability to log into a centralized dashboard, versus separate systems.
Frustration around incomplete or incoherent data is a common theme at “nearly every institution we talk to,” says Dave Kieffer, principal analyst at the Tambellini Research Group. That’s particularly true when it comes to critical decisions like whether or not they can afford a program, if an institution should stay open or if it should merge with another organization. “These are urgent, existential questions, and not having holistic, quality data impedes their ability to make those decisions,” Kieffer explains. “Many senior leaders are figuring out they lack the capability to make great decisions from their data, or that it takes too long to pull the data they need,” he adds.
As Kieffer explains it, effective solutions encompass four disciplines: data governance, data repositories, analytics and integration. “All of these things are critical for good data and good analytical results. If you try to solve just one, it’s like playing whack-a-mole,” he reasons.
Next steps to better data, better decisions
Looking ahead, Kieffer recommends three near-term steps for lasting data benefits:
- Leaders should collaborate on shared data goals, instead of electing one data “hero” (e.g., CIO or IT team) to make unilateral data decisions.
- Assess the four disciplines that Kieffer identified above and determine weak links.
- Focus discussions on a real problem that needs to be solved and is important to the institution.
“Focusing on real problems is what pulls people forward, versus an academic exercise,” Kieffer advises. “Ensure the initial work in all those disciplines points to a specific problem, versus trying to solve everything for everybody. If your biggest problem is retaining first-year students, for example, focus resources on building processes to ensure data is up-to-date, aligned and analyzed for that problem. Then build outward from that.”
What opportunities are hiding in your data? Learn more about how your peers are approaching data on their campuses. Download the full survey report here.