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June 26, 2024 | Institutional data analytics

Does Your Data Help You Answer These 4 Questions to Future-Proof Your Institution?

Leaders at institutions of higher education stand at a crossroads. The landscape around them is changing rapidly as a result of growing external pressures like enrollment volatility, workforce alignment, regulation shifts, financial constraints, and artificial intelligence, to name a few. The way forward is not yet apparent, and, despite the murkiness, they are grappling with the need to make decisions now in order to prepare for the years ahead. In Inside Higher Ed 's 2024 survey of College and University Presidents, two of the most pressing concerns shared were financial stability and mergers/closures - largely due to enrollment challenges and rising operating costs.

The unknown can feel intimidating, but institutional leaders who leverage data analytics during this uncertainty will be better able to analyze information in real-time and make faster, better decisions to set their institutions up for long-term success. As you plan for the years ahead, asking these four questions will help shape your strategy and position yourself more proactively for the future. 

1. How Can You Get Ahead of the Enrollment Cliff? 

Institutions are heading towards a precipice, with projections showing significant declines in the number of traditional-age college students over the next five to ten years. This impending shift underscores the urgent necessity for higher education to recalibrate their strategies, utilizing data-driven insights to remain appealing and retain a diverse student body even in a contracting market. Being able to confidently track net tuition revenue through enrollment forecasting, yield modeling, optimizing financial aid, retention analysis and student-risk scoring will become mission critical capabilities.

Implementing analytics can arm colleges with insightful data about student demographics, preferences, and behaviors. This information can then be used to anticipate changes in college enrollment rates and adult-learner populations. With predictive analytics, institutions now have the power to forecast changes in enrollment, which enables the crafting of targeted recruitment and retention strategies. Moreover, colleges can also make the best use of data analytics to optimize their marketing endeavors, financial aid distribution, and program offerings. This ensures that they can meet the varying requirements of a fluctuating student body, maintain a competitive edge, and navigate the complexities of the higher education landscape.

2. Who Is Being Left Behind?

Institutions already have programs to address and assist struggling students, but they need to be aware of recent changes and sensitive to the uncertainty all around. Since the prevalence of online learning that surged during the pandemic is now endemic, it’s a good time to assess the impact on students. While some students  moved seamlessly to distance learning and virtual classes, others struggled. The critical starting point is recognizing that there may be differences between who struggles typically and who is struggling now. Is online learning accentuating the normal achievement gaps, or creating new learning gaps not seen before? The answer will direct whether to respond by doubling down on traditional efforts or whether new intervention methods are needed.

Fortunately, the monumental shift to remote learning has created a massive amount of data readily available for analysis. Historically, learning management system (LMS) data utilization could be sporadic, limiting the usefulness of conclusions that could be drawn from its analysis. The wealth of obtainable data now – in metrics such as participation and performance – offers a much greater ability to examine what is happening in the classroom, to visualize and track trends, and then to implement plans for improving student success. 

This data on student success rates and challenges will help institutions when planning for the future of their online learning efforts, which are likely to only continue to grow in importance. In the absence of historical precedence, institutions that quickly capture and effectively analyze data as it materializes will place themselves in the best position to serve the needs of their students in real-time. And the insight gained should be incorporated into analysis for longer term plans, guiding strategic decisions and future student success.


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3. Are We Offering the Right Programs?

While colleges and universities periodically reassess their program offerings, the current situation makes this a necessity. Institutions need to take a deep look at their programming, and be open to new delivery models and alternatives. 

Unlike other sectors, higher ed often reacts counter-cyclically to an economic shift. Why? During recessions, with higher rates of unemployment, people often fill the gap by going back to school. Leadership would be wise to look at programmatic data from the years following the “Great Recession” of 2008. Did program-demand shift during that time, for instance from liberal arts degrees towards business or technical fields? If there was a shift, was it a temporary bump, or has demand continued in the same direction? Answers will be unique to every institution but might shed light on what is coming. And, while recent historical data provides an interesting comparison, one must keep in mind that the current crisis could play out differently.

A model increasingly in question is the tradition-entrenched four-year march to a degree. Forward-leaning institutions have already begun exploring ideas for offering shorter degrees, or arranging “stackable credentials” that build up to the attainment of a degree. This allows students to work toward degrees in bite-sized chunks that feel less daunting. 

No matter the offering, alternative experiences should focus on providing on-ramps to students, reducing both traditional and new barriers to choosing to go to college. Any pathways that foster a willingness for prospective students to try something less intimidating will provide the benefit of getting people off the fence and into class. Paying close attention to program data – for both existing and new offerings – will allow leadership to react quickly if an older program is suddenly less popular, or if a new program is growing by leaps and bounds.  Likewise, having the ability to view and examine trends around which students are finding success with different delivery models helps position institutions to better serve their changing and diverse populations of students.

4. What Financial Planning Capabilities Are Needed to Support Decision-Making?

Given all that is at stake, higher ed needs to take a proactive approach to financial planning despite the fact that, historically, this has been more of a reactive process, with institutions enacting short-term solutions in order to viably carry on the educational mission. But now colleges and universities must pivot to a more proactive stance and develop long-term strategies in light of the new landscape.

Since educational institutions often take longer to steer in a new direction than other organizations, becoming more agile can be a challenge. Leaders want to make the best decisions and often delay action to wait for additional information, because they know that the repercussions of any course change will ripple forward for a long time. But during a such a high stakes environment, slow decision-making can be costly. The use of multi-year financial planning tools, labor benchmarking, contribution margin analysis, and course & instructor utilization analyses to manage expenses today and plan for the future are critical in today’s environment. 

The good news is that much of the information needed to recalibrate plans and re-forecast may already be in an institution’s possession – it just needs to be released from its “data silo.” It's critical for leadership to look at financial and student data holistically, not only at separate slices or business units, and to develop methods to do so on an ongoing basis. Fitting together the most complete picture possible will greatly increase the sophistication of your ability to forecast. And the tools to do this are available. 

Informed by Your Data, You Can Chart Your Path for the Future

The four questions above can feel daunting. The good news is that institutions today are armed with an array of data that both guide smart decision-making and speed up the process of doing so. Employing analytics brings together data sets for visualization in ways that enable you to move from reactive triage into proactive and integrated planning. In order to capture changes already in progress and take advantage of this process that will be ongoing for the foreseeable future, the time to act is now.


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