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ARTICLE | April 11, 2023

With data analytics, higher education smartens up

Universities, like organizations everywhere, are facing work shortages, as well as a tide of student dropouts. Higher ed CIOs have turned to data analytics in education for help.

Big ideas are the bedrock of colleges and universities. Big data is helping them come to grips with an uncertain future.

Today, 71% of universities and colleges report having one or more data analysts on staff. Their mission: to leverage analytic insights and empower data-driven decision-making to better serve students and faculty, and in the process help to future-proof their institution in uncertain times.

“Higher ed institutions tend to be slow movers compared to other industries and organizations,” says Jack Neill, vice president of product at HelioCampus, a higher education analytics advisory firm. “The pandemic changed people’s mindsets. Now CIOs are latching onto these tools and making bolder, faster moves.”

As higher education accelerates its digital transformation, colleges and universities face a raft of challenges that will be familiar to any organization: rising costs and dwindling revenue; navigating customer (i.e., student) turnover and staff shortages; and building resilience to face radical change and disruptions. They’re looking to the data for solutions, with the help of analysts who are themselves often in short supply.


Digital transformation in the public sector

In the battle to enlist data specialists, large institutions with deep endowments like Arizona State University (ASU) have a clear advantage.

One of the largest public research universities in the U.S. with nearly 150,000 students attending classes across its five campuses (and another 38,000 studying online), ASU boasts more than 600 data analysts working in dozens of different departments.

Why so many? Lev Gonick, chief information officer at ASU, says the pandemic was a wake-up call to build resilience against future disruptions. To that end, Gonick’s Enterprise Technology team reorganized to increase agility and seed data-driven decision-making across the vast institution.

That required bolstering its data infrastructure. Today, ASU’s data warehouse includes data from 74 separate sources, from admissions to alumni relations. In addition to offering a suite of best-in-class analytics tools, Gonick’s team has built an analytics portal that collects all of the analytics reports and dashboards from across ASU in one place.

“The analytics portal is the face of data within ASU,” says Gonick, noting that it has 7,000 active users within the ASU workforce from facilities managers to department chairs. “We use data and analytics to inform decisions at every level.”

Data-driven decisions can make a big difference not just in the provost’s office but in the freshman dorms as well.

Nearly 1 in 4 first-time undergraduate freshmen quit school during their first year, while up to 40% of their class drop out before graduation day, according to an Education Data Initiative report. Of all student loan borrowers, 40% carry debt without ever earning a college degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the hopes of stemming this tide of dropouts, analysts at Georgia State University reviewed 10 years of statistics to find 800 data points that correlate to dropout rates, down to how many times a student logs into the school’s Wi-Fi network. And from July 2021 to May 2022, DeVry University monitored hundreds of factors for every student and initiated outreach for those deemed at risk of withdrawal. The result: 84% of those identified as potential dropouts continued into the next semester.

Data-driven decisions can make a big difference in reducing dropout rates.

Faculty and administrators, like workers everywhere amid the Great Resignation, are eyeing the exits. More than a third of higher education professionals said they were likely or very likely to seek new employment within the next year.

That’s bad news for cash-strapped colleges and universities, three-quarters of which reported in 2021 that they are facing severe financial constraints.

The 20,000-student strong State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) turned to data analytics to rethink its approach to its hiring issues.

For decades, UB’s approach to workforce planning had been based on the “best guesses” of each department head. To formulate a more data-driven hiring plan, it collected data on every position in the university, and categorized each as strategic (for future-focused roles), core (for essential services), or merely “utilized,” a job role that the department could either rethink or eliminate entirely if the staffer retired or left.

A whopping 25% of current jobs fell into the last bucket. The analysis not only provided a North Star for future hiring decisions, but also for redeploying workers into critical positions and turning “utilized” roles into entry-level positions.

Of course, none of this works without the data analysts to translate the information in a way that CIOs and university administrators can put to practical use. And as in all industries, data specialists are in short supply.

While 83% of large academic institutions like ASU (with 15,000 or more students, faculty, and staff) have one or more employees dedicated to supporting analytics, only 50% of smaller schools do, according to a new study by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association dedicated to promoting IT in academia. University and college CIOs and CTOs report that they’re vying with organizations outside higher education that can offer higher salaries and more flexible remote work policies.

To solve this problem, some universities are getting creative, says EDUCAUSE researcher Ashley Caron. “They’re merging cross-functional teams, one from this department, another from that one. They’re saying, ‘Let’s bring together people with these skills to focus on institution-wide needs.’”


Percentage of institutions with fewer than 15,000 students and staff that have at least one employee to support analytics

And should all else fail, as higher education professionals come to realize the growing value of data analytics in education for students, faculty, and academic institutions as a whole, it’s a short walk from the office to a classroom and a chance to upskill to a much in-demand new role.


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Howard Rabinowitz is a business and technology writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla.