I recently spoke to a VP of Institutional Effectiveness working in the southwest who joked that he often explains his job as counting how many students are at his institution. He’s met with disbelief, which deepens when he elaborates that the institution pays his whole team to answer similar questions. Of course, that’s a huge oversimplification of the hard work Institutional Research and Effectiveness teams do every day. But it’s undeniable that our colleagues in IR are forced to spend too much time on questions that should be easy to answer—particularly when data is vital to inform high-stakes decisions.
So why is it difficult to use campus data to answer seemingly simple questions? In my conversations with community college leaders, common themes emerge. Here are 4 signs your data strategy may need attention—and what to do if these signs show up on your campus:
1. Drastic enrollment declines are a black box for decision-makers
Enrollment continues to decline for many of the community colleges that I have spoken to this fall. Despite our best efforts to provide tuition waivers, hybrid courses, and virtual onboarding options, students simply are not finding their way through community college doors. And for many enrollment leaders, poor visibility into the recruitment and enrollment processes limits their capacity to understand trends and develop effective solutions.
To address this data gap, progressive leaders are focused on democratizing and sharing data across their recruitment and
enrollment technologies to understand which of their populations are missing, and better yet, which marketing, recruitment, and onboarding tactics are proving most effective in bringing students across the registration finish line.
2. Campus leaders are questioning the value of technology
Technology has never played a more critical role in meeting student demands. From enrollment gains to student success to operational efficiency, technology allows community colleges to do more with less—a need many Chancellors and Presidents have expressed when telling me how they struggle to meet community expectations with shrinking budgets. However, without a comprehensive data strategy, many institutions are missing the technology “sweet spot” of real-time student intervention, manual labor reduction, and administrative cost savings. I hear often of leaders frustrated by various “point solutions” that prove to have redundancies, leading to even more fragmented data. On the other hand, 76% of large institutions have data trapped in legacy systems and remain fearful of the disruption that new technologies will provide.
To ensure that your technology ecosystem works together in harmony—even with disparate systems, solutions, and processes across the college—consider a data platform to unite student and campus data across systems and provide an integrated view into operations and strategy.
3. Your IR team is mired in a backlog of compliance reports
In addition to sharing how many students are enrolled on campus, IR and IE are consistently asked to find the silver bullet solutions for tricky strategy questions. Unfortunately, though, many institutional researchers spend months preparing annual state and federal compliance reports, drawing their time and attention away from these critical—and often time-sensitive—strategic analyses. EAB research indicates the typical backlog for unit-level data requests is 3-6 weeks. As a result, many institutions look for expensive support on ad hoc BI reports, costing roughly $10,000 per report.
Where institutions are building capacity to support these efforts, it’s through automating much of the state and federal reporting—but with existing capacity constraints, analysts struggle to find the time to do so. That’s where partnering with a broader data collaborative can help: the University of Montana estimated that they have been able to save a full month of staff time by automating a process that saves them from manually updating 30 dashboards.
4. You leave cabinet meetings with more questions than answers
Ultimately, data can help solve the myriad of complex challenges that you, as leaders, face daily. But too often, we get caught up in the data—Is it valid? Where did it come from? What is it actually telling us?—and it becomes difficult to take any meaningful action. Where there’s a lack of trust and collaboration across the college (and its data), leadership will continue to be stuck in meta-analyses of the issues at stake, forfeiting the time and attention they should be allocating to bold new strategies and service models to meet the emerging needs of today’s learners.
To shift the dialog from insight to action, progressive institutions are seeking to provide self-service data centered on common business processes and concepts, helping leaders uncover information sooner, and move with much more agility and confidence. These are the institutions that pivot recruitment strategy, understand which success initiatives are moving the needle on retention, and proactively address systemic inequities.
Creating a shared data foundation pays off in the long run
If your leadership team is struggling to activate data for today’s critical conversations, you’re not alone. But by prioritizing projects that deliver shared data, centralized warehousing, compliance automation, and self-service reporting, you will free up internal capacity for more complex analytics—allowing leadership to embrace broader collaboration in service to new strategies, data-informed policies, and innovative programs for the years ahead.
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