A Data-Oriented Approach to Higher Education



Making use of data can be difficult. For instance, many institutions still face the challenge of getting departments to agree on answers to questions such as, “What is an active enrolled student?” Meanwhile, students, accreditors, governments, donors, and the public are looking for evidence that an institution is making data-informed decisions. It’s these decisions that will lead to students achieving a credential and helping our nation compete.

As such, here are some ideas to consider as your institution works to deliver on its mission.

Setting the Stage

Can you relate to this? I clearly remember being one of many incoming freshmen in an assembly. The orientation speaker was encouraging us to work hard and to focus on the goal of graduation. “Look at the person to your left and to your right.  Chances are, they may not be around four years from now.”

I don’t remember there being any success courses, learning communities, or programs for peer mentoring. Nowadays, retention initiatives and student success offices are commonplace. They provide resources for the incoming student’s transition to the college or university and dedicated to improving outcomes.

Innovations & Metrics

It’s important to remember that such innovations, along with resulting metrics, have come about for a number of reasons. For example:

  1. Federal student aid is available, but in many cases will only be provided to those students who have made satisfactory academic progress in a time period that’s acceptable to your school. So, advisors must monitor and address academic issues and obstacles in a timely manner.
  2. Donors are available to provide large amounts of funding, but they may want to hear what the school has achieved since last year, and may be asking for additional reports. Advancement officers should aim to have current information on these projects. Also, having a report of the project’s impact would help them make productive use of the appointment with that donor.
  3. Because your institution is just one of many that a person may be considering for his or her educational needs, college recruiters and admissions counselors need to have access to some easy-to-consume higher education data on how their college or university competes among regional and academic peers of various classifications. (Keep in mind that this should include affordability and several measures of student outcomes.) Therefore, you should break data down into sub-categories that make sense to the prospective student, such as location, college and major.
  4. You must continually re-evaluate operational excellence to recognize the needs of your students. For instance, departments should optimize communication with technology that enables information to be efficiently shared. Furthermore, the offices that interface with the students should automate mundane tasks. This will improve the student’s experience by eliminating wait time and giving them a sense that your institution truly values them as individuals.
  5. Finally, accreditors are calling for the institution to track student achievement in relation to the institution’s mission, and to make decisions based on that mission. Many state governments have funding formulas to allocate a portion of funding based on performance indicators. These indicators may be tied to completion of courses, time to degree, transfer rates, or the number of degrees awarded.

Where Does One Start?

Can you tell if these initiatives are making a difference? Is it clear that campaign goals are being achieved? Are you measuring results?

Improving enrollment, graduation rates, or any other institutional goal, should ideally start with a strategic plan – one with specific, measurable goals. The data-oriented approach to higher education is one that draws a line in the sand. Whether the topic is tied to student metrics, financial decisions, community impact, or engaging alumni, you can make progress by pulling data from multiple places and doing more than bringing thick notebooks to executive retreats. As such, there should be a way for:

  • The president to see college progress at a glance, and make more informed decisions.
  • A vice president or director to get basic institutional statistics.
  • An enrollment management analyst to reveal which recruiting events yield the best results in terms of successfully enrolled students.
  • A student to receive a timely, personalized notice of their admissions status.
  • Advancement officers to get quick answers to everyday questions, and to distribute a relevant message to their target audience.
  • Automation to make it simple, with best practices
An Alternate Approach

In some cases, the strategic plan may not be available, or may not contain specific metrics. However, that programmer/analyst who has consolidated some static reports into a multi-purpose reporting app might now have time to pursue more strategic efforts.  So, that individual might then ask an admissions director, “What are 5 things you’d like to see every morning?”  Or, “Do you have a goal toward which you’d like to track progress?” Deploying a solution to retrieve and display those metrics would help that director stay informed and accountable.

Start Simple

Keep in mind the Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It definitely applies here. For example, instead of an overly ambitious project, my recommendation is to define a project with tight boundaries. Maybe start with a simple, crisp dashboard or report for key decision-makers, or for a key functional area.

Also, keep in mind that one size and shape does not fit all information consumers. Hence, consider the preferences of your constituents. Do they prefer a colorful display? Summary amounts for a given term? You should deliver what has been requested using a tool you trust.

Once accomplished, the next steps can be more intricate, such as analyzing a trend across multiple time periods, or drilling into details that support the key performance indicators.


In conclusion, these ideas should help you take a more data-oriented approach. Most noteworthy, you, as a campus leader or someone focused on making things happen in your functional area, should be encouraged that you can be a part of the solution!

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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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