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Data-Savvy College Presidents 'Remain the Exception'

While the head of a retail or manufacturing operation who refused to exploit data to improve sales and operations would be dumped before the next shareholders' meeting, the same isn't true for college presidents. In higher education, according to a new report, data-savvy leaders "remain the exception, not the rule."

In The Data-Enabled Executive: Using Analytics for Student Success and Sustainability, the American Council on Education's (ACE) Center for Policy Research and Strategy suggested that colleges and universities that have successfully "harnessed" data are improving their student outcomes, promoting equity and inclusion, and optimizing resourcing strategies. Yet, a 2017 ACE survey found that only 12 percent of presidents ranked the use of institutional research and evidence in the top five areas of growing importance for the future.

Center researchers Jonathan Gagliardi and Jonathan Turk also provide examples of promising practices to show how leading schools are using data in "novel and effective ways." They suggested, for instance, that college leaders leverage institutional research "as a teacher of data and analytics good practices." Modest starts have led to many of the largest success stories, they noted. "Key to their efforts were strong leadership, clear goals, routinized use of data, a culture of inquiry and a willingness to change," they wrote.

One example is Georgia State University, which has increased its six-year graduation rate by "over 20 percent," while doubling its number of Pell-eligible students over the last decade, according to the report. The institution's graduation and progression system uses big data mining techniques to give students academic guidance. By accelerating graduation, the use of data has also saved students "an estimated $12 million in tuition."

The report doesn't shy away from coverage of the challenges of data work: poor and inconsistent data quality; siloed data sources; fears over misuse of data; and upfront costs involved in developing an "analytics culture."

The pressure to use data isn't going to go away, the researchers asserted. "Leaders will need to be well versed in the opportunities and challenges of leveraging data in order to better inform business models centered on student outcomes, equity and inclusion, and optimization."

The report is openly available on the ACE website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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