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Data Mining at UCF Helps Measure Goals Against Booming Growth

Rapid enrollment growth is great, but can bring its own set of challenges. Ask administrators at the University of Central Florida, one of the fastest-growing universities in the country. With 46,000-plus students, the university has seen enrollment jump 35 percent in 10 years.

To help keep tabs on all sorts of burgeoning numbers while continuing to drive toward its business goals, UCF is increasingly using data analysis and reporting efforts to benefit numerous departments at the university. According to M. Paige Borden, director of institutional research and university data administrator for UCF, data mining efforts are supporting administrators ranging from deans to department heads to directors of financial aid and marketing.

In shear data warehouse volume, the university is storing more than 10 million records so far, mostly focusing on student-related data. Using both the SAS Data Integration and SAS Business Intelligence enterprise software suites to tap into its PeopleSoft ERP system, UCF is pulling and closely analyzing data from student systems, human resources, and finances and, in doing so, is picking up on previously unknown trends.

Borden, who is part of the Strategic Planning and Initiative Division within the university, said UCF is a long-time SAS customer. (In fact, the school offers a Data Mining Statistical Certificate Program with SAS.) The school first rolled out the SAS Data Integration Suites some four years ago, followed by the SAS BI suite two years later. That was followed by a portal environment, built using SAS BI tools, that was initially used internally by Borden's department, then rolled out to faculty and staff in fall 2007.

In a picture that many fast-growing institutions will recognize, UCF data was once housed in multiple data sources, from legacy systems to the PeopleSoft ERP system. That meant Borden's staff had to respond to internal and external queries themselves, something that could take days or weeks. Looking at data over multiple years at once wasn't possible, so spotting trends was difficult or impossible.

Also, business users such as deans couldn't do their own data analyses. With the the new systems in place, that has changed. In a day, sometimes even a few hours, a custom report can be run. And business users can run simple reports in less than a minute, Borden said. Internal users can also transfer the data to other software products, continue to manipulate it as needed, and prepare a report--all without contacting Borden's department for help.

For a university with the student population and growth rate of UCF, tracking key performance indicators is critical. That means, Borden said, having dashboards that can quickly show administrators information such as the university's success at fund-raising, research and development dollars, and how well UCF is drawing national merit scholars to its campus. "One of the dashboards that we've been working on is how we stand within those [parameters]," Borden said. "We've set internal goals, so we're comparing our successes in each area to those goals"--goals that are reviewed by the university president, provost and board of trustees.

By creating a portal that gives users a single location to go for various report types, "we're trying to provide a total reporting solution," Borden said. Through the portal, administrators can get aggregate information about the university, such as geographic reports on where students are coming from. By drilling down to the deepest level of data, Borden said, "you're actually able to look at detailed [data for] an individual section of classes and the students who are enrolled in those classes." That can gives administrators and instructors a sense of who is taking what classes, for example, and may help in tailoring content.

Another example of analytic capabilities that Borden's department can now offer is the ability to pin down how long students have been in a particular major and how that affects issues such as retention and graduation rates.

"If your graduation rates are going up," Borden said, "is it because your students are more clearly identifying their majors ahead of time, or are they going up by default because we're retaining more of our students?" With the BI tools in place in more and more areas, Borden's group can answer those questions in detail.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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