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Fostering a Culture of Evidence

The Virginia Community College System--one of the largest in the country, with 23 colleges on 40 campuses--leverages business analytics to inform key institutional initiatives. Here, Catherine Finnegan, assistant vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness, tells CT about her organization's plans to extend the reach of analytics to a broader range of decision-makers systemwide.

Campus Technology: How has the use of business analytics changed over time at VCCS?

Catherine Finnegan: Analytics first started to become part of the way colleges do business about five years ago. Several national initiatives, including Achieving the Dream, made it important for community colleges to understand their students better. Community colleges were beginning to be required to collect a lot of information about their business processes and about student success. As a result, VCCS started working on several different data marts.

Initially, we tried to answer very specific and discrete questions on issues such as faculty workload and credentialing, facilities management, retention and graduation, and curriculum. But these were very siloed data marts, and the people using them tended to be institutional researchers--the same people who have always used data. Not many others--middle-level administrators, for example, or deans, or department heads--were using the data. We were missing a lot of the people who actually make on-the-ground decisions and could benefit greatly from data analytics. We wanted to get data into their hands.

So, more recently, we started a new project that we hope will improve the data we collect, broaden it, and break it out of silos. To eliminate silos, we are moving away from the initial process of building data marts and moving to a data-warehousing approach instead. Plus, we are looking at taking data from external sources, such as the Virginia Employment Commission or the National Student Clearinghouse. The general idea is to break down silos and offer access to broader and more transparent data to a wider audience.

CT: How do you see your users' needs for business analytics changing in the future?

CF: We joke that there's a "Maslow's Hierarchy of Data"--the more data you provide to people, the more they want different types of data in order to ask more and more complex questions. But these may be important questions! So we need to be prepared to offer more data and address data-quality issues.

Another thing we need to consider is a quick snapshot of data. Often, users don't need a full report or a real drill-down; increasingly, they need a way to check data points quickly, even in the middle of a meeting. Developing regularly updated dashboards that users can rely on to foster their discussions is going to be important. I also hope we'll be able to include a social media component in all of this.

CT: What is your biggest hope for business analytics at VCCS?

CF: My hope is that we will be able to train more people within VCCS to use analytics to make data-driven, evidence-based decisions for themselves, for their programs, and for their institution.

Community colleges are really in the spotlight right now. Every other day you see something about community colleges in the national news media. For the local community college or system, this can be an opportunity to use data we're already collecting to validate or deny those national generalizations. Data can help the VCCS community build a culture of evidence we can rely on to respond to scrutiny and fulfill the role the community expects of us.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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