Four Approaches to Data

Four Approaches to Data

By Tim Fuller, Senior Vice President / Owner 

During my time at Credo I’ve been on several hundred campuses and many of those visits have involved working with institutional data about enrollment, programs, retention, finance, and market research. As someone who grew up studying numbers, starting with those found on the back of baseball cards, I’ve always been intrigued by the different approaches to critical data. 

People’s approaches to data seem to fall into one of these four categories:

  1. Data is a four-letter word! We don’t find this very often anymore, but every once in a while, we still encounter a campus where gathering and analyzing data is seen as a deterrent to intuition, creativity, or “The Powers That Be.” As one president used to say: “Don’t confuse me with the facts! I already know what we ought to do.”
  2. Important? No doubt. Organized to gather the right kinds of data? Not yet. We see this approach more often. This approach can stem from a variety of factors like being short-staffed, the absence of a systematic approach, or not having an assigned person or team in the institutional research capacity. Campuses often realize they can and should be doing more, but they aren’t sure how to get started or what to do next. It’s hard to know what you don’t know when you don’t know!
  3. Data? We’ve got lots of data! In fact, it’s all in that box over there. This is probably the state we find the most campuses in. They have done a great job of gathering data systematically, participating in many if not all of the alphabet soup student surveys (SSI, NSSE, NSCH, etc.); however, they fall short of taking the critical next step of analyzing their results or putting their analysis into action.
  4. Goldilocks. Do you remember the story of Goldilocks? Recall as she sat at the table to taste the bowls of porridge, and one by one, the porridges were too hot, too cold, and just right. Goldilocks campuses are in that “just right” zone. They strike the delicate balance between gathering data and making use of it. A trusted data analyst once told me, “The point of this kind of research is not to gather data as an end in itself. The point is to gather enough data and then act on what it is telling you.” 

Once you hit the "sweet spot" of gathering and acting upon your data, you may notice an arising conundrum: you can never have enough data, but you can have too much. In other words, every study you do can be the catalyst for more studies, which can, in turn, be the catalyst for more studies. Finding yourself in an overwhelming loop like this often results in paralysis rather than analysis, and can quickly become exhausting, guilt-inducing, and unproductive.

Rather, be intentional about collecting the right kinds of data. Set goals, ask questions, and be willing to face the facts. If the data you’re collecting isn’t serving a purpose, re-examine your goals and how to get there. Be intentional about how you plan to act upon your data. Communicate your findings, goals, pathway to success, and what benefits your community will reap from your laborious analytical pursuits.

What is your institution’s approach to data? If you’re not quite at the Goldilocks stage, are you taking intentional steps to get there? If you’re ready to move that way, consider these tips for approaching data the most impactful way:

  1. Determine the most critical data elements to track.
  2. Gather that data systematically (and archive it carefully); create a high-level dashboard to keep it visible.
  3. Make sure your team includes someone with an orientation toward the so what side of data analysis and turn them loose.
  4. Present your analysis to relevant constituent groups on campus; solicit feedback as necessary.
  5. Finally, and perhaps importantly of all, take actionable change or growth steps, build upon your good work, and adapt to best serve your campus in an ever-changing higher education landscape.

What kind of data do you collect? Do you need help getting started, with analysis, or are you looking for recommendations on how to do more with the data you have? Credo's data experts are here for you, and are ready to meet you where you are and partner with you to move to the next level. From admitted student research to predictive modeling to financial aid packaging matrices, we have you covered.

Contact us today to start the conversation.

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