Leveraging analytics to boost enrollment

Connect data with decision-making to compete and thrive—or paltry prospects and eroding enrollments will continue
By: | January 30, 2020
(Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash)(Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash)
Jason Simon is associate vice president for Data, Analytics, and Institutional Research at the University of North Texas, and a UB Tech® 2020 featured speaker.

Jason Simon is associate vice president for Data, Analytics, and Institutional Research at the University of North Texas, and a UB Tech® 2020 featured speaker.

A perfect storm is on the horizon for campus leaders concerned about class size. Competition from online providers is proliferating, community colleges are expanding to offer four-year degrees, and high school students are earning advanced placement and dual-enrollment college credits at unprecedented levels. Recruiting is also heating up as the early stages of forecasted decline in future high school grads sweep the country.

In Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), Nathan D. Grawe posits a loss of potentially 15% in the traditional higher ed-entering student population. Zeroing in on high school grads only, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects a national decline of 4% over the next 10 years alone in its “Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates” report.

Achieving financial and enrollment goals by relying solely on traditional practices is no longer enough. College and university executives and other leaders within enrollment management must leverage new approaches and skills to compete in today’s higher ed marketplace. As evidenced by a recent joint statement by the Association for Institutional Research, Educause and NACUBO, it is time to invest in analytics.

How to move forward with analytics

Analytics must be more than just making information look pretty in a chart or graph. At its core, analytics is the “use of data, statistical analysis, and explanatory and predictive models to gain insight and act on complex issues,” according to the joint association statement referenced earlier. To leverage analytics appropriately to exceed enrollment goals, campus leadership needs to be willing and able to invest in appropriate tools, technologies and talent to support looking at data differently.

Leaders should first consider if they have enough internal resources to develop a suite of capabilities in analytics. Next, they must determine if they are prepared to confront any gaps and embrace the reality that enrollment management, just like a comprehensive analytics strategy, is a team sport. These answers will serve as a foundational starting point for building capacity in analytics.

To leverage analytics appropriately to exceed enrollment goals, campus leadership needs to be willing and able to invest in appropriate tools, technologies and talent to support looking at data differently.

Once the decision is made to innovate and invest in analytics, the following six strategies are among those that can help leaders move forward:

  1. Hold an analytics summit with executives. Identify an executive sponsor for any new enrollment analytics effort (campus CEOs are ideal for many reasons). Guide these advocates to help identify targeted and tangible goals that must be met for the analytics program to be considered successful. Encourage drilling past simple FYI needs to real key performance indicator concerns.
  2. Conduct a data maturity study of enrollment-related data. Where does does data live? How can it be shared across the organization? Who is responsible and accountable for it? Who needs to be consulted on or informed of enrollment data questions?
  3. Focus on data quality, veracity and integrity. Beginning from a place of strength with an emphasis on data governance is key. No analytics suite is powerful enough to overcome inconsistent data that is not understood or considered valid by stakeholders.
  4. Begin a conversation with institutionwide partners, with a special emphasis on IT practitioners. Host a lunch to discuss an analytical vision for the future of enrollment decision-making. Build relationships with key stakeholders who can assist in developing the business case for change and offer a collaborative approach to thriving through change.
  5. Lead the culture change by educating Enrollment staff about analytics and how it differs from traditional reporting. Consider hosting reading circles, workshops or critical conversations around the need for new partnerships. Bring in guest speakers to help contextualize analytics into real-world opportunities.
  6. Partner with your Institutional Research staff early on and learn together. As keepers of traditionally official data, these practitioners truly understand the key levers of enrollment data and how data is used beyond the institution. Be prepared to work through challenges related to transactional, fluid and rapidly changing data structures typically housed outside of IR repositories.

Read: 3 points to consider before taking on data analytics

Where to focus your efforts

Given enrollment functions vary by higher ed institution, the following guidance should be adapted to fit different approaches. In most cases, enrollment units traditionally encompass Admissions; Financial Aid; the Registrar’s function; Visitor or Tour Centers; and, increasingly, IT or data units. Each of these units benefit from analytic approaches that, if adopted, will impact class size and yield (percentage of all admits who eventually enroll). Given the volume of data that is produced by these functional areas, it is important to be strategic and goal focused. Institutions may find success by investing in analytic efforts in a few of these ways:

  • Invest in a specific data model that captures enrollment data identified as being important across various information silos. In the short term, leverage existing statistical analysis tools to compile data for analysis. For the long term, look to fund and invest in a new data warehouse in which enrollment questions can be examined for possible solutions.
  • Develop a “what-if” model to forecast yield by analyzing prior admissions and enrollment data. Specific attributes around financial aid awarding, student demographics, student academic quality factors and other institutional factors would be worthy of examination. Adjusting scenarios to visualize an impact on yield is key. Remember to document and define the business terms for stakeholders to keep everyone on the same page.
  • Forecast the impact of aid (both merit and need-based) on potential to enroll. Consider previous awarding practices and correlated yield rates as important background data.
  • Conduct analytic practices to test, modify and refine recruiting campaigns, and other recruitment practices to identify the best ways to engage potential students.
  • Leverage web analytics and resulting webpage data by the area visited to build new predictive models of potential student interest types and then report their interests. 
  • Leverage state reported high school graduate data by high school to forecast future yields and to guide recruitment strategies.
  • Look for publicly available data on high school trends, statewide patterns and federal information to inform and build upon internal enrollment data.

Read: How colleges are navigating a new world of enrollment

It is almost impossible to argue against leveraging analytics to grow enrollment—assuming responsible use and ethical standards of behavior are hallmarks of the program. It is indeed a major opportunity to impact trends for the better. Looking beyond just the tools or tactics, we must also focus on the conditions needed to be successful in leveraging data to ensure the health of our campuses. 

Analytics come with costs, and implementing analytics is an investment that must be weighed. For those campuses embracing this way of operating, the potential return on investment cannot be understated. Helping ensure that campus enrollment goals are met (especially during challenging times) requires steadfast leadership to prioritize funding, advocacy and staffing to see the full potential of analytics.  

Ultimately, connecting data with decision-making within enrollment management areas enables analytically focused institutions to thrive at a time when others feel the unintended consequences of choosing not to invest. Higher ed is at a critical point. Let’s choose to embrace a philosophy of bold investment and aggressive timelines. We must ask ourselves if we are ready to just let change happen to us, or if we want to act to help our institutions thrive. Given the projected declines in enrollment, I would vote for the latter as the preferred course of action.

Jason Simon is associate vice president for Data, Analytics, and Institutional Research at the University of North Texas, and the program director for the UNT Insights Program. He is a UB Tech® featured speaker, presenting the “Innovating in Enrollment Analytics: Demographics are Changing, Are You Prepared?” session.

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