Higher Education Data Governance Explained



If you work at a college or university, there may be plenty of topics that generate more attention than “data governance,” but do any of these three ‘progress-stoppers’ ring a bell?

  1.  You’re in the Office of Institutional Research. Today, your job is to do some cohort tracking and to see how well students are being retained. You need to start by determining the answer to the question, “What is a student?”
  2.  You support Enrollment Management, and your task is to see: a) The number of high schoolers who attended a recruiting event last year, b) How many of those have enrolled in your institution, and c) How many are successful.
    You need to access your recruiting data, run a match against your Student Information System, and then figure out “how do we define ‘successful’?
  3.  You are in a meeting, and someone states that your institution has 5,259 students. The number in your recollection is quite a bit different.  Whose definition is correct?

Welcome to the world of Data Governance! In this blog, I’ll be addressing the following questions:

  • What is data governance?
  • Why do it?
  • How do I get started?


A short definition of data governance, as brought to us by the Data Governance Institute, is: “The exercise of decision-making and authority for data-related matters.”

For those who like more detail, DGI shares that it’s “a system of decision rights and accountabilities for information-related processes, executed according to agreed-upon models which describe who can take what actions with what information, and when, under what circumstances, using what methods.”

No, this isn’t a project driven by your IT group. It certainly involves IT because they maintain the systems that hold the data, but it primarily involves the various departments of your institution that use the data.

Data governance boils down to decisions about data:

  • Who can make them?
  • When do they make them?
  • How do others know the decisions?


You may be seeing decisions like these:


  • The executive council operates on hunches and are still getting by, so they see no reason to make decisions any other way.
  • “When the pain of staying the same exceeds the pain of change, we’ll change.”
  • Staff says it’s difficult to see where leadership is going.


  • For some, excitement about analytics drives them to analyze EVERYTHING.
  • They often end up with less-than-useful results.
  • “Do tall, thin students do better than short, stocky students?”


  • For those whose executive leadership has migrated into working with higher education data after experience in the business world
  • The shock to them is the amount of effort to answer questions. For example, a programmer must often write a program to answer executives’ questions. Or a group of people have to meet & discuss over a weekend with their data in three-inch binders.
  • “I should be able to answer this with a browser-based dashboard in a click of mouse!”

Exactly!  Now we’re getting somewhere. There are some areas that demand more attention in higher education and, for most of you, your goal is to be data-informed, but not driven solely by that data.

We want to be data-informed because we have drivers motivating us and because we want to be responsive. Drivers come from the outside, such as accountability to accreditation bodies and to stakeholders (students, parents, donors, community, government).

The opportunity, with valid data, is that we provide evidence that we’re being true to our mission. Thus, there are internal drivers that keep us accountable to the mission.

  • What is our mission, and what makes our institution distinctive?
    • Can we measure our distinctive capabilities, so that we can compete effectively?
    • Do we want to use data incrementally, yielding minor results?
    • Or do we want to do so strategically, yielding major results?
  • Are we serious about our strategic goals? Such as:
    • Enrollment
    • Persistence
    • Retention
    • Completion
    • Efficiency
      • Reducing cost
      • Reducing empty seats in classes
      • Streamlining operations

Clean, dependable, and consistent data helps us answer the critical questions in a timely manner. And when the challenges come, we can accurately know what we look like when we lose 5% of state funding, or to make data-informed decisions on what we cut. On a more positive note, if we get more funding, such as a large donation, we could also use our data to make the decisions such as, “What do we add?”


At some institutions, people meet on a regular basis to discuss data policies across functional areas. This communication helps them see how one department’s data fuels the needs of other departments.

Maybe your response is, “that’s great, but my departments don’t like to meet.” Hint: Start small, such as just your area. Once you start, the ball is rolling and there are all kinds of tools to help you move to a better place.

The impact of doing it is huge.

It all goes back to data governance, and asking “What’s worth doing?” You want to be able to ask anything, and to know if you can answer it. You may not be able to, and that’s ok. But if you don’t have the data, don’t make it up.

My goal has been to introduce the subject of data governance in the context of colleges and universities.  We’ve talked about what data governance is, why to do it, and how to get started.  I appreciate having the opportunity to share some thoughts with you, and I hope this has been helpful for you in some way.

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Tim Beckett is a Client Partner on our Client Experience Team (CET) at Evisions. He manages the Evisions Community, and is focused on finding ways for experienced customers to share their insights with others in the Community. Tim joined Evisions in May 2016, bringing with him ten plus years of experience in Higher Education solutions tied to business intelligence, data integration, and data integrity. He earned a BBA in business computer science from Abilene Christian University. Tim lives in Austin, TX and, in his spare time enjoys mentoring, traveling, and games with family and friends.

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