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Fostering a Culture of Evidence: Business Analytics at the Virginia Community College System

A Q&A with Assistant Vice Chancellor for Institutional Effectiveness Catherine Finnegan

The Virginia Community College System--one of the largest in the country, with 23 colleges on 40 campuses--has leveraged business analytics to help streamline information processes, achieve cost efficiencies, encourage data and information sharing and transparency, and identify ways to offer improved service to the community. Here, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Institutional Effectiveness Catherine Finnegan [photo, right] talks with Campus Technology about VCCS's use of business analytics.

Mary Grush: In general, how has VCCS been using business analytics? Can you give a few key examples?

Catherine Finnegan: VCCS is perhaps not unique among community college systems, at least in the past few years, in that we’ve been using data to drive our business decisions. Using data analytics is nothing new. If you go to AACC, usually you'll hear presidents from community colleges able to quote statistics clearly--they know the data and are using it. But what VCCS is using data for--you could say our own "take" on leveraging business analytics--is to drive forward several mission-critical initiatives.

Take for example, our strategic plan, Achieve 2015, which has five components directed specifically at access, affordability, student success, workforce, and resources. Using our business analytics tools, information related to these strategic initiatives is provided at the college level as well as at the system level at VCCS on a regular basis to the presidents--in fact, the data is included as part of the presidents' evaluation discussions with the chancellor. Achieve 2015 data are quoted across the leadership of VCCS as well as at the college level.

Additionally we've been using analytics as part of a significant re-engineering effort at VCCS. Our chancellor took an opportunity to look at something that he could have viewed only as a bad situation--the budget crisis--and instead focused on the question, "What is it that we can do better to improve the success of our students, moving forward?" The re-engineering began with "ten big ideas" developed by a group made up of all types of people at VCCS--including administrators, teaching professionals, staff, IT leadership, and students--who came together to answer the question, "What can we do better in our work that would perhaps cost less money, serve students better, and ensure that students are being retained and graduating in a timely manner?" And while that meant we hoped to graduate students perhaps with less cost, more importantly it meant that we wanted to graduate them with the degrees they need to be successful in life. We wanted to determine the workforce credentials to put in place, to help students be successful in the workplace. Out of those "ten big ideas" came 28 different initiatives--including a redesign of our developmental education process, which has certainly required quite a bit of data and analytics to understand what we needed to do to improve testing and how students move through developmental ed classes.

In many ways, we are using analytics is to improve our processes, to understand better what we do, and to be able to move forward with our core business: making students more successful.

Grush: Is VCCS using analytics both in operational and in academic areas?

Finnegan: Absolutely. Just to give you a few examples: In business areas, we are using analytics to look at procurement across the 23 colleges, enabling us to make sure we are using our buying power effectively; we are also using it to help identify staff development needs and opportunities for training programs. We using analytics to look at technology innovation--to consider questions like how we can use technology to improve the ways we work, such as reducing travel time by using communications media like Web conferencing, or through better use of more traditional communications.

On the academic side, the developmental education redesign is a good example of how we use data analytics to improve processes. Each one of our developmental education initiatives has five metrics that we track from the time a student places in those classes, during all the time that they are in the developmental ed classes, through the time they progress to the college level, and up to the time they graduate. We have metrics that we look at annually across all of the colleges to determine what sort of impact the developmental ed program is having. And we can drill down to find out specifically where students are having problems, to learn how we are performing--viewing the data at a much more granular level than we were ever able to before.

Grush: Recently, have you seen a marked increase in the use of business analytics applications and tools, or a big change in the approach to analytics at VCCS?

Finnegan: Well, yes we've seen the increases and change you're asking about, with "recently" being in the past five years. VCCS was right in that bubble, about five years ago, when analytics were first coming on board more generally and becoming part of the way colleges do business. 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 a number of different data marts. Initially, we were trying to answer very specific and discrete questions on things like faculty workload and credentialing, facilities and facilities management, retention and graduation, and curriculum. But these were very siloed data marts, and the people who were using them tended to be institutional researchers--the same people who have always used data. Not many others, for example, middle-level administrators, deans, or department heads were using the data. The fact was, we were missing a lot of the people who were actually making on-the-ground decisions, who could benefit greatly from the data. We wanted to get data into their hands. So, more recently we’ve started a new project that we hope will improve the data we are collecting, broaden it, and break it out of the 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, for example, Virginia Employment Commission data, or data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The general idea is to break down silos and offer access to broader and more transparent data for a wider audience.

Grush: How do you see your users' needs for business analytics changing in the future? What changes would you like to see in business analytics?

Finnegan: We say a bit jokingly that there's kind of a "Maslow's Hierarchy of Data"--the more data you provide to people, the more they're going to want different types of data in order to ask more and more complex questions. But, these may be important questions! So this is an issue that we're going to have to be prepared to face: Can we provide more and more data in a way that continues to meet the needs of users and encourages them to ask more and more important questions they can use to make better and better informed decisions?

Also I think the technology is going to need to mature. I'd like to see business analytics in higher education include more academic information. One of the things that has been a dream for us at VCCS for a long time is to be able to draw information from the learning management system and couple that with data from the student information system, to be able to study the behavior of our students academically, both in face-to-face as well as online classes.

I think the integration of data across state and national data sources, and being able to share that data without violating any of the federal privacy regulations is something we're going to need to work on and deal with going forward, too.

Another thing that we’ll need to be able to address is the need for the "quick snapshot" of data. Often times users don't need a full report or a real drill-down; what they need is a way to check data points quickly, maybe even in the middle of a meeting. So developing useful dashboards that are updated in a regular way so users can rely on them to foster their ongoing discussions is going to be important. I'm also hoping that we'll be able to include a social media component in all of this.

Grush: What is the most important change you see happening in the near time frame for business analytics at VCCS?

Finnegan: As I mentioned earlier, we are transitioning from the data mart model to a more integrated data warehousing model. While that sounds technical on the surface, it is a fundamental change that represents an important approach to doing business at our institution. As I've said, by doing this we are hoping to break down those silos. This is one of the most important steps we can take that will continue to foster the culture of evidence we've been building for years. My hope is that we will be able to train more people within VCCS to access and use data to make data-driven, evidence-based decisions for themselves and for their programs and institution.

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

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