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The fallout of the pandemic has forced institutions and students alike to come to terms with redefining the true value of higher education. Almost overnight, higher ed institutions have been expected to play not just the role of educator, but also of service provider. Embracing this new service provider role has forced university leaders to re-examine the quality and accessibility of the education they offer in light of the rapidly changing needs of students.

To succeed in this environment, university officials recognize now more than ever that institutions must double down on articulating and evoking their mission and values. To do this effectively, they also recognize adopting a more data-driven culture. Harnessing the power of data analytics can help institutions attract and retain students who align with their mission and values, as well as improve operations and innovation.

Methodical data mining and analysis is arguably the most powerful tool to counteract declining enrollment, deepen student engagement during matriculation, increase graduation rates and promote alumni giving. From the top of the marketing funnel through graduation and beyond, every aspect of a student's journey with a higher ed institution must be optimized today in order to thrive amidst the new normal in which we live. Data is the key to creating that optimal student experience.

Mapping the student journey

So how can institutions harness data more effectively to enhance the overall student journey? Business and technology leaders within these institutions must first focus on qualitative outcomes, meaning, they must spend time empathizing with their students. They can work with consultants or systems integrators to map out all the various touch points in which students interact with their organization. This approach will look at those touch points from the perspective of the student and their families.  

Start out by focusing on the current student experience, highlighting preliminary research--first-hand observations, interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, etc. A consultant can help officials through initial empathy and journey maps to highlight friction points, identify gaps and capture relevant feedback from key stakeholders.

The findings uncovered during the qualitative discussion can then be applied quantitatively in order to determine how best to leverage data. As part of this analysis, institutions should focus on:

  • Business Outcomes – Based on the initial analysis, what data capabilities do you need to track, monitor and service students' needs and expectations?
  • Use Cases – What use cases have been deployed? When deploying data science use cases, what areas have been successful, and what challenges have you faced?
  • Data – What are your key data sources? How are they managed? Have there been challenges obtaining the right data with the required data quality? What is your current data governance strategy?
  • Infrastructure – What analytics tools and platforms are in use?

The output from these discussions will help an institution determine which insight-driven solutions are needed to gain a better view of how students and families interact with their institution, as well as the types of data driving those interactions.

Higher ed institutions, like all organizations, need the ability to collect, report and analyze data. As a result, the following steps must be taken into consideration:

  1. Improve Data Maturity. All educational institutions must understand where they are in their Data Maturity Curve, which measures how advanced an organization's data analysis capability is. Knowing where your institution is on the curve will help maximize the value of data while minimizing risk.
  2. Break Down Silos. Many organizations' data resides in a mix of on-premises systems or in a cloud via software-as-a-service sources. Institutions should begin to assess the various options to extract data from each unique source system.
  3. Harness the Power of Emerging Technology. Institutions should integrate technology such as artificial intelligence/advanced analytics, automation and the cloud into their overall data strategy to streamline operations and spur innovation.
  4. Create a Data-Driven Culture. Focus on how your institution can foster a data-driven mindset throughout your workforce to enhance collaboration across the college or university enterprise.

As higher education officials look to reinvent their institutions in this age of digital transformation, proper use and understanding of data will help to pave the way for improved student recruiting, better student outcomes, greater institutional efficiency and overall cost-savings.