Inside Higher Ed

Using Campus Data to Support Student Success and Steer the Institution: Inside Higher Ed Data Conference

There’s been a big shift on campus, according to panelists and attendees at the recent Inside Higher Ed conference, “Untapped Data: Enhancing Teaching and Learning.” Higher education is moving away from using campus data solely for compliance reporting and toward using data to manage the institution, support student outcomes, and enhance teaching and learning. Here are five key takeaways from the day’s conversations:

1. Campus culture determines how successfully data is used.

“Organizational culture is fundamentally critical,” said Jack Suess, vice president of IT and CIO of University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Data technology is necessary, but never sufficient. There has to be a partnership across the university: Institutional Research, enrollment management, the provost’s office, IT. It takes a group working together to do this well.” If there’s too much effort on technology, you’ll under-resource other areas; if you underinvest in technology, you can’t get the data you need, Suess noted.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Webster Thompson, executive vice president of business development at Watermark, reminded the audience, referring to management guru Peter Drucker’s famous statement. “In our experience working with thousands of institutions, [success or failure in using data] is never about the technology.”

2. Data can confirm—or debunk—conventional wisdom.

Good data can challenge long-standing assumptions. Travis Reindl, senior communications officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shared an example from Georgia State University’s remarkable, data-driven success story. “One ‘aha’ moment was discovering that registration errors were very consequential. They set off a chain of events that led to attrition,” Reindl said. These errors might include taking a class out of sequence or before prerequisites were met. “Getting into the wrong class led to drop/add, withdraw/fail. It was a navigation issue, not a capability issue,” Reindl said.

“If you look at any university, there are a large number of departmental or campus academic policies, such as GPA or gateway courses, which were created before we had data to know if they really are predictors,” Suess said. “Data gives you a chance to go back and look at policies to see if they’re right.”

3. How you define and apply metrics matters.

Noted data skeptic Jerry Z. Muller, professor at The Catholic University of America and author of The Tyranny of Metrics, shared his concerns about the potential pitfalls of data, including cost and the perceived pressure to lower standards to meet an institution’s graduation-rate metric.

Moderator Scott Jaschik, founder and editor of Inside Higher Ed, countered with an example from a University of North Carolina campus that used data to uncover what factors were keeping many students from graduating in four years. “They discovered that, in most cases, students were within two courses of completion, so they decided to waive tuition for the summer before senior year and four-year graduation rates went way up,” Jashik said. “It was a big win using data, with no change of standards.”

4. “Data silos” limit access to complete information.

The data needed to understand and improve student outcomes, change policies and practices, and better manage the institution are often housed in different systems or offices. In addition, the data is sometimes incompatible, so can’t readily be combined for analysis. These data silos inhibit the use of data campus-wide to answer both big-picture and single-issue questions. Panelists and audience members advocated for aligning data systems to break down silos so administrators and faculty have better access to the full range of campus information. In addition, “we need to make data consumable, and really easy to use,” said Rachelle Hernandez, senior vice provost for enrollment management at University of Texas at Austin.

5. Capturing data is just the beginning.

“Good data doesn’t answer questions,” Debra Humphreys, vice president for strategic engagement at Lumina Foundation told Jaschik. “Data, well designed, helps you ask additional questions.”

“Data is a tool, not a solution. [It’s easy to make] the mistake of not thinking hard enough about how we’re using the data,” said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust. There is, Jones noted, an over-reliance on available data. “We are sometimes making use of existing data that’s far beyond what it can really be useful for,” Jones said. “Data can be powerful, but we have to consider the quality of available data versus the ideal data we should be collecting” to inform decisions.

Throughout the event, panelists and attendees spoke of the need to overcome data silos created by gathering data in different places for different uses, without the ability to share it across the institution. They also stressed the importance of a shift away from a compliance-based focus and toward a proactive focus on better serving students and steering the institution. Finally, they advocated for using data to raise the questions that allow substantive improvement and innovation on campus, all in service of students.

Watermark was a silver sponsor of Untapped Data: Enhancing Teaching and Learning.