Four takes on predictive analytics in higher education

Communication across campus departments remains an important step

Predictive analytics are gaining traction and popularity in the industry, but not all schools approach them in the same way.

Instead of creating a new department or naming an existing researcher head of the task, many schools are instead spreading the responsibility among several departments.

"The interesting story here is about the sheer number of people playing what would often be considered a traditional role in the institution—vice president of undergraduate affairs, for example—who are now in charge of designing, implementing, and integrating predictive analytics," says Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a coalition of 11 public research institutions.

The alliance is attempting to recreate member Georgia State University's success with predictive analytics at other institutions.

Instead of "best guesses," institutional leaders want accurate predictions. External pressure plays into it as well: 32 states allocate part of the funding on performance or completion metrics, according to the 2015 research from the National Council of State Legislatures.

University Business interviewed four "data czars" about implementing analytics at their schools.

Elaine Lewis, Washburn University

Lewis is Washburn's director of evaluation at the university's Center for Student Success and Retention. Washburn is an open-access public school and is working to better understand which groups are at risk of not completing. Administrators recently found that students who work on campus and those who live on campus are more likely to return than those who do not.

So now, staff members identify students who are eligible for but not participating in the Federal Work-Study Program, and then contact them about job options. Lewis wants to expand the student employment budget, as well as on-campus housing.

However, not everything is based on analytics. Lewis teaches a transition course for first-year students, and she meets with student-veterans to better understand how to support that population.

Lisa Daniels, Excelsior College

Daniels serves as the assistant vice president for analytics. One of the school's main goals is to identify which students are engaged and at-risk—making them more likely to respond to interventions—versus which students are disengaged and at-risk.

In her position, Daniels regularly reports to the chief information officer and provost to discuss data transfer, process automation, and integration plans. She also works alongside the deans, associate deans, the strategy and institutional effectiveness department, and the IT department. 

Vince Kellen, University of Kentucky in Lexington

Kellen, the senior vice provost for analytics and technologies, leads a decentralized analytics program that improves financial aid, staffing, course enrollment, and student success decisions. For instance, students who fill out the FAFSA late or register for limited credit hours are less likely to plan to return to campus. That can help staff allocate financial aid, because aid given to a student who doesn't return could have been offered to a new student instead.

Guide students through applying for financial aid, registering for courses, and more

Collaboration is a major part of his job, Kellen says.

"A typical day for me involves a lot of conversations," he says. Kellen says he works with people in IT, financial aid, and admissions, as well as helping other colleagues comprehend the data's value.

"I'm sharing our goals and objectives with others and getting consensus about what we want to do. I'm identifying organizational issues that are preventing progress and finding a way to deal with them."

Thomas Blum, Sarah Lawrence College

As the vice president for administration, Blum heads up the school's initiative to forecast how many accepted students will enroll and attend.

"We had a clear signal from the president and the trustees last fall when we fell short of our target that we could implement what we needed to in order to have more confidence in the probability that the class we want to enroll will actually do so," Blum says.

Advice from the 'czars'

The predictive analytics leaders stressed that it's important to communicate across silos.

"Don't do it in a vacuum," Sarah Lawrence's Blum says. "Everybody involved needs to be part of a team that's working to reach the objective."

Lewis from Washburn adds, "Everything is so new that when you make a request, people can be apprehensive because they don't quite understand how you'll use the data," Lewis says. 

Working with other institutions helps as well, Excelsior's Daniels says.

Harness the power of big data to increase revenue and increase student success

"If you can, find partners who are also undertaking this significant change. One of the benefits is that you have people you can call when you have questions," Burns says (Beckwith, University Business, accessed 5/27).

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