Five Key Concepts for Leveraging the Expanded Data Layer

By tapping into the campus-wide data layer, colleges and universities can uncover new information to strengthen institutional effectiveness. Here are five key concepts to guide a new approach centered on data-informed decision making:

1. Explore your unique ecosystem of data

Regardless of an institution’s location, size, or mission, reliable information is a key asset for tracking progress and guiding continued growth. Yet all too often, instructive data is scattered across a campus and locked away in silos. Moreover, this data is typically collected in response to compartmentalized, time-sensitive requests linked to accreditation reporting or another prescribed process. While the information gleaned from national reports and benchmarking data is valuable, standardized reports can’t fully address an institution’s specific challenges or goals.

To map out current and future progress, it’s important to look inward and leverage your unique ecosystem of campus-wide data. This data comes from many sources and can provide insight into many aspects of institutional effectiveness—from stewarding limited resources to measuring program effectiveness. But perhaps the most relevant data points are those that derive from the heart of your educational mission: the evaluation of student learning and development.

2. Resist the temptation to compartmentalize

Point solutions and services feed the appetite for technology-driven metrics. But because these compartmentalized solutions aren’t designed to connect seemingly disparate data points, they can’t support a long-term strategy for fresh insights. By providing quick fixes for discrete areas, these solutions can actually work against your institution-wide progress. Instead of breaking down silos, they mirror them—and during a time when the paradigm needs to shift, solutions that mirror the traditional silos aren’t real solutions.

As one example, on their own, even the most robust student involvement statistics about campus organizations can’t contribute to the learning conversation. But when this data is connected to retention rates for an academic major, its utility increases. By leaving data sets in their traditional silos, not only will your institution likely miss opportunities, you can also wind up with misleading information. Another example is all too familiar to IR offices: a student inadvertently gets counted twice because of the way departments report their numbers for enrollment management.

How does the point-solution approach affect institutional progress in the long run? The benefits are short-term, and campuses end up spending significant amounts of money on multiple products, including fees for implementing and integrating them with existing systems. Without a centralized data system and the ability to triangulate data, institutional researchers can’t connect the data points and then evaluate them in relationship to one another.

3. Target new insights, not more research

As any overworked research director knows, the ability to access campus-wide data often hinges on the responsiveness of equally busy colleagues. In this scenario, how is it possible to be proactive? How can your IE staff evolve from serving as collectors and managers of data to being strategists and visionaries? Your assessment coordinator should also be seen as a potential capacity builder, capable of performing multiple roles to help move your institution forward.

To meet the pressures of an increasingly crowded higher-ed marketplace, institutional leaders have focused on different questions. What’s happening? has quickly shifted to Why is it happening? and What will happen over the next decade? A new question might be: How can we make something that we need happen? It’s a shift that necessitates activating new insights, not necessarily doing more research.

Remember that your data always refers back to the student experience. You’re not looking at mere spreadsheets of random data; you’re interacting with information that both illuminates and impacts the lives of your students

Pursue a selective and purposeful approach to streamlining and evaluating your data. No office across your campus should be able to dictate that its individual data be involved in every decision. Clarify what matters in the ecosystem in relation to the specific challenge being addressed.

Understand the difference between statistical and practical significance. You should preserve a sound data ecosystem that will help you avoid both “analysis paralysis” and the temptation to cherry-pick statistics or fall back on isolated anecdotes.

With a truly connected data ecosystem, you can use intentional data mining to identify relationships that have been overlooked. A thoughtful use of the data ecosystem can also help you build an application-to-donation map of the student experience at your institution.

4. Enable a data-informed strategy with an enterprise approach

Instead of continuing to view assessment as a process to coordinate, why not transform it into a roadmap for continual progress? A holistic approach will let you access the expanded data layer that exists across the campus ecosystem. You can then think critically about the data, make use of purposeful analytics, apply data science, and play an integral part in strategic planning for the institution. With a comprehensive picture of how your students think and act, especially to the extent that these factors can predict their success, it will become easier to:

  • Recruit and matriculate students who will likely succeed, and not absorb the cost of replacing students who can’t be retained
  • Offer your newly matriculated students services that have been demonstrated to lead to success for students with similar academic profiles and challenges
  • Design intentional learning experiences that enable your students to reflect on their own learning, make informed choices to extend that learning; and then support them in appropriate, relevant, and individualized ways
  • Align co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities with what your students want and need to excel in and out of the classroom
  • Make informed choices about limited resources, and strategically direct time, money, and human capital to programs and services that best serve and support student learning

5. Remember that progress is incremental and begins with a single step

As higher education continues to adapt to new demands, campuses will need to explore new ways to measure and guide their institutional effectiveness. Will dramatic changes be achieved overnight? Of course not. But even one step can signal progress, enabling an incremental transformation for long-term success. Don’t be afraid to tap into your expanded data layer, break down the traditional silos, and embrace a new approach to the information-rich resources you already have.

This blogpost is an abridged version of the Campus Labs white paper, Changing Your Relationship with Data: New Opportunities for Institutional Effectiveness. Download a free copy of the paper today.


Photo of JD White

JD White

Vice President, Product Management | Campus Labs

John “JD” White, PhD, leads the Campus Labs project development team as Vice President, Product Management. His areas of expertise include assessment in higher education, student success and retention efforts, the use of analytics in higher education, and the development of technology to support institutional effectiveness. Before joining Campus Labs, he managed assessment initiatives for the Department of University Housing at the University of Georgia. He has also had student affairs roles at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Northern Arizona University.