Universities, large and small, private and public, are complex enterprises with issues unique to the education sector. While business intelligence (BI) is a well known option in business, there are specific challenges BI must address to gain deeper inroads into higher education.
There are a number of different issues in higher education that can be addressed with BI. For the sake of brevity, we’ll limit our discussion to the following areas of focus:
- Providing a complete picture of enrollment
- Improving resource allocation & increased efficiency
- Creating strategic-level views of key metrics
- Supporting faster queries and more immediate answers
Outsiders might see student enrollment as similar to business sales cycles. This function is significantly different, though, yet can still be addressed by BI. While business sales managers are focused primarily on the three attributes of budget, timeliness and need, bringing students into an educational institution is far more complex.
The acceptance process – evaluating whether or not a student is the right fit for an institution – involves many factors. Lead generation is also more difficult for many schools. Outreach to the many secondary education institutions, both public and private, is time intensive and can be expensive. Directly addressing student and parent needs can also be a challenge, especially since colleges can create multiple tracks for students depending on educational needs, athletics programs and other factors.
Admissions funnels tends to be more intricate than business sales funnels. The right BI tool should provide clear methods to track potential students from initial identification on through application, admission, and enrollment. Similarly, it should help identify areas of strength and improvement as they relate to recruitment.
In the business world, we don’t have to change offices every few hours. That’s not the case with students attending classes. Institutions must continually manage facilities and staff to optimally plan classrooms and faculty based on student enrollment, needs, etc. This can change with each academic term.
Classrooms and courses
Higher education resource allocation is a logistics challenge. BI can help institutions with their planning. The high-level challenge that drives the allocation is the need to manage course requirements for all the degree programs. The goal is to provide the right courses at the right times to help students progress to graduation. For example, larger classrooms will likely need to be allocated to accommodate introductory courses. Such courses, whether they be English, chemistry or math, are often comprised of a large contingent of freshmen. Conversely, senior and graduate level courses typically have far smaller enrollment. So those classes should be distributed among the smaller rooms. Business intelligence can track all of this.
An added complexity is that classes aren’t independent. There are often pre-requisites. BI analysis must link courses to ensure the right pre-requisite courses are available early enough in the program. A student’s graduation can be delayed due to lack of access to the needed classes. That’s something both the student and the school want to avoid.
While that logistics problem is difficult, it’s only the beginning. Once classes are defined and rooms allocated, there still need to be instructors. The modern balance between full professors, adjunct professors, and teaching assistants means that the right personnel allocation is a challenge every term. Because the numbers of tenured professors and graduate assistants tend to be less flexible, proper planning for the contracting of adjunct professors is a key issue in managing operational expenses.
In the past, it was difficult to not only make those plans, but to track current data to better prepare for future decisions. Modern BI systems enable higher education organizations to track student attendance in real time, or as close to it as possible. This not only ensures more accurate planning for the next academic term, but it allows for easier adjustments in facilities and faculty when unexpected changes occur in course enrollment, facility availability, and staffing.
Strategic View of Key Metrics
While many people looking at higher education focus on the students, that is only part of the picture. The administration must evaluate metrics in a variety of areas, including student success, staffing, financial aid, and funding. BI can be used for all of these.
First, how are students doing? Yes, this question is vague, but business intelligence can help you answer it from numerous angles – all of which can serve as valuable metrics. Some examples include:
- Is the institution recruiting students who will be successful?
- Are students progressing as expected?
- Who are the students at risk of failing and/or dropping out?
Having the ability to answer such questions via business intelligence gives the school a leg up in developing strategies to improve or maintain their efforts toward student success.
Part of an institution’s success, as with the overall success of any business, depends on staffing. Having the right number of instructors, administrators and facilities support is critical in any business. As mentioned in the previous section, the fluidity of student and course allocation can impact operational expenses – including staffing. Metrics provided via BI are needed to balance financial and educational needs.
Nowadays, most students need some sort of financial assistance to attend college (especially 4-year institutions). Therefore, higher education organizations must track any and all financial aid distributed among enrollees. Such reporting is not only beneficial to the school but is likely required on a federal level.
With business intelligence, a college or university can view and track all forms of financial aid and dig into those metrics should they need to break down financial aid disbursement for a more granular view.
Another area where metrics matter is also a key part of most institutions’ planning and activities: funding. This can include tuition, research grants, donations, and other avenues of financial support. Colleges and universities need to understand the balance to improve areas that may be lacking and to gain an advantage where necessary.
Academic institutions tend to have many silos, yet the upper levels in the administration need to have a clear view of all financials. BI can link to the many different sources of information and present strong analysis to help the administrators act to ensure financial success. BI can help answer, among other questions:
- Are current advancement efforts successful?
- Who should be targeted for advancement donations?
- Are tuition payments occurring on time?
- What is the frequency and impact of research grants received?
- Are alumni and corporate donations trending upward or downward?
Immediate Access Matters
The final high-level area to be discussed is the need for immediate results. An example from academia comes from a university president’s meeting with a group of donors. A discussion on enrollment leads to a question about how many males graduated from a specific high school with a GPA of 3.0 or better and received financial aid this year. In a lot of instances, the only answer possible would be, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” The information may be somewhere in the administration’s files, but getting that into a spreadsheet, creating a report, and then getting it to the donor would take time. That, then, slows the access to money and doesn’t present the institution in a great light.
Fortunately, in this instance, the school was using business intelligence and had a good data model in place. Therefore, the president was able to pull up the necessary information and provide it to the donors sitting in front of him in about a minute’s time.
Just as in other areas, higher education needs BI systems that can quickly allow management to ask questions and retrieve answers on a variety of important topics. Canned reports and slow turnaround may have sufficed in the 1980s, but not anymore. Real-time queries of an institution’s systems require breaking down information silos. BI allows an administration to quickly receive, understand, and act on the answers to the questions that arise – both simple and complicated – when running a modern day college or university.