Higher education has access to more data than ever before – and, faced with mounting challenges, it’s imperative for college leaders to begin to leverage analytics.
We know we have the technology needed to tap into the valuable information analytics provides. However, to truly reap the benefits, college administrators must begin to see analytics as a skill—not a tool—required for success.
Technology has provided numerous opportunities to higher education: expanding access, facilitating communication and collaboration, providing new ways for students to engage with content, and more. It has also made analytical investigation possible.
But technology alone will not enable colleges and universities to benefit from data. Analytics, especially when it is treated as a tool, is not an elixir. It requires purposeful transformation of institutional practices.
It would be easy for administrators to claim they are data-driven by investing in data and analytics resources. But the findings must inform action. Faculty, staff, and administration may have access to the latest dashboards, but the data alone can’t tell them what to do. It isn’t the path of progress.
How can college administrators begin to harness all this data? First, the data must be trusted. More than half of the 334 college and university business officers who participated in the 2019 NACUBO Study of Analytics see mistrust or misunderstanding about how analytics will be generated or used as a barrier to the integration of analytics at their institutions. All of this information represents real people: the students and staff members. These individuals have rights when it comes to their data—knowing that it’s being used, how it’s being used, and having the right to deny its use. When the rights of data creators and the knowledge of experts are not fully appreciated, data can perpetuate biases and may do more harm than good.
Second, the expertise of campus leaders, who understand the contexts of their campuses, and analytics staff, who understand the nuances of data, must be utilized. Nearly 80 percent of business officers in our recent study reported that there is not enough core analytics workforce capacity on their campuses. Skilled staff will need to be hired and enabled by their institutions to ensure quality data, build the infrastructure necessary to facilitate campus-wide access to analytics, and act as data coaches to support others in their ability to ask questions and interpret findings. Their research expertise and technology acumen will build and maintain data warehouses and dashboards.
Once other stakeholders—faculty, staff, and administrators—have access to information, they, too, need to apply their expertise and use information for transformation. However, more than eight out of 10 business officers we surveyed expressed concerns that end users do not know how to translate analytics into actionable information.
In a data-informed, analytics-enabled campus culture, stakeholders across the institution should use analytics tools and resources as part of their regular responsibilities. Facilities staff, for instance, could have dashboards monitoring energy consumption, which would show them where repairs were needed or inform their decisions about scheduling. Advisors would be able to monitor student progress and intervene early and in meaningful ways. Deans would be able to forecast the enrollment demands of programs and could better understand the cost of course delivery methods. Senior leadership would be able to strategically transform institutions to ensure their long-term ability to serve their mission.
These outcomes sound ideal but won’t be achieved easily. As with all competencies, development of analytics as a campus-wide skill will require an investment of time and resources. Senior leadership will need to build capacity across departments. The entire campus community will need to see the value of adopting a data-informed culture and recognizing how analytics can support their work. Senior leadership will need to develop their data literacy skills—learning how to ask the right questions, how to make analytics actionable, and how to monitor for accountability.
When analytics is viewed as a skill, it requires much more effort across an institution. But it is the key to enabling us to better serve students today and in the future.