Like many other elements of the American economy, higher education is working to realize the potential of sophisticated data analytics to inform and transform how it operates. In August 2019, the Association for Institutional Research (AIR), EDUCAUSE (the association of campus information technology professionals), and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) released a joint statement with the provocative title “Analytics can save higher education. Really.” Its purpose was to inspire a sense of urgency and provide direction for higher education leaders to harness data as a strategic organizational asset. The statement features the following rationale for investment in data analytics:
“We strongly believe that using data to better understand our students and our own operations paves the way to developing new, innovative approaches for improved student recruiting, better student outcomes, greater institutional efficiency and cost-containment, and much more.”
However, progress has been uneven, with some state higher education agencies, university and college systems, and individual institutions leading the way while many others struggle to adapt. Why?
The Strategic Data Project (SDP) at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University has a ten-year track record of developing data capacity in state and local PK-12 agencies and organizations and interviewed 40 leaders and analysts at 29 institutions of higher education and postsecondary organizations to explore their data needs to understand why some colleges and university systems are excelling in using data and others have yet to fully realize the potential of their data to inform strategic decisions that transform student success in school and the workforce.
Our key finding is that the missing link is not in the technical infrastructure but in human capacity. If higher education is to take advantage of data analytics to improve student outcomes and increase organizational effectiveness, it will have to find better ways to attract, train, and retain strategic data professionals who can inform policy and practice.