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Case Study

NCCC: Data Cleansing Key To Managing Growth

Community colleges are in a good spot in some ways during the economic downturn, as tight family budgets drive up the appeal of the community college option. But along with the rest of higher education, most community colleges also face shrinking IT budgets and tighter resources. That makes it that much harder to handle the growing enrollment numbers that some community colleges are seeing.

It's a perfect time for technologies that can streamline business processes and clean up data such as student names and addresses, thus saving serious money on the enrollment and retention process in the long run.

A community college that is discovering the benefits of using technology to cleanse its burgeoning enrollment data is Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY. NCCC reached an all-time high this fall semester when it enrolled 6,668 students, according to Registrar Julie Speer.

She attributed the growth to several factors, including the economy, but also top-notch faculty and articulation agreements that allow students to transfer more smoothly to four-year colleges. Niagara is a member of the huge State University of New York (SUNY) system, and transfers from Niagara to four-year SUNY institutions are common.

But the growing volume of student names and other data has also brought challenges for the college. "Basically, with our increase in enrollment has come an increase in returned mail," Speer explained. "We're trying to reduce that return [and] to get information to students more accurately."

Because various departments on campus enter student data into the student information system, including admissions, the registrar's office and the community education department, "we didn't have a good means to enforce our data standards," Speer said. That sometimes meant a delay in mailing information to a current or prospective student.

With new software in place, Niagara hopes to be more proactive in its efforts, both cleaning up existing student data as well as getting cleaner data into the system in the first place. To that end, Niagara recently purchased two products from Experian QAS, a company that offers customer data quality software and services.

Experian's products can be used to verify names, mailing and email addresses, and telephone numbers on either the front end as data is entered, or on the back end as information is added to databases, or both. For example, Experian QAS Pro will "auto-complete" a user's entry when it recognizes the portion entered so far. Experian QAS Batch is address correction software that scrubs existing data, automatically correcting spelling and formatting errors while adding the U.S. Postal Service's "ZIP + 4" codes.

It sounds simple, but the result of cleaner, better data can be far-reaching, saving money on staff time correcting addresses, printing and mailing costs, returned mail costs, and a myriad of other areas. Such a tool can also save by streamlining operations for admissions offices, registrars, and other student services departments.

For example, Speer pointed out several cost-saving advantages of having name and address files that comply with the US Postal Service's data standards. That includes discounts on mailings by complying with the Postal Service's move/update standards, which can save money through reduced postal rates, as well as fewer returned mail pieces and more students reached.

Experian QAS is moving to take advantage of an opportunity in higher education, rightly seeing community colleges in particular as good candidates for the benefits of improved data quality. Experian is working explicitly with community colleges with solutions like its QAS Pro for address verification and QAS Batch for cleaning up existing data. Experian QAS, which has some 10,000 customers worldwide, recently cited 30 schools that it is working with, including Niagara County Community College, Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Lorain County Community College in northeast Ohio.

One of the reasons NCCC selected Experian QAS Pro and QAS Batch, both of which it purchased this summer, is the fact that the software works not only with the SunGard Higher Education Banner software system, which is NCCC's student information system, but with other software as well. That includes software called Razors Edge that is used at Niagara to maintain alumni contact information.

At NCCC, the software runs on campus; Experian provides bimonthly data updates to its customers via a DVD that updates the installation. An Experian spokesperson said that by using a disk rather than the Internet to handle updates, the software isn't bogged down with online updates and runs faster.

For now, NCCC is in what Speer described as "the preliminary stages" of exploring the software's power and how they hope to use it. It is piloting Experian in Speer's offices before distributing the product to the admissions and community education departments next, she said.

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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