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2014 December 19 - 05:31 am

Dig Deep Into Data To Build Effective Strategic Plans

Dig Deep Into Data To Build Effective Strategic Plans

Analytics is a trendy buzzword in higher education, evoking images of exotic data gathered from multiple sources as if by magic to describe scenarios that were previously unimagined. Analytics has been defined by research analyst Jacqueline Bichsel as “the use of data, statistical analysis, and explanatory and predictive models to gain insights and act on complex issues.” Given this definition, we argue that analytics should be nothing new to community colleges. A wealth of data has always been available to solve complex issues. Sadly, most of these data have been underutilized, especially in the college’s strategic planning process.

It is easy to confuse technology with access to data. Many believe that without the latest and greatest software, the pursuit of analytics is impossible. While it is true that the newer generation of student information systems using business intelligence has added value, the reality is that the basic processes of extracting, analyzing, and making sense of data has changed little since student record systems were first automated more than five decades ago. To use an old chestnut, where there is a will, there’s a way.

What is quite new in the analytics sphere is the widespread use of course and learning management systems that can produce interaction data about student engagement within courses. Technology can provide more data points about student engagement and learning, but this availability, too, requires effort to produce and employ sense-making if strategy is the goal. Putting together the old and new must come with the realization among community college leaders that there is no easy solution for producing strategic data.

External sources, chiefly secondary databases, have aided community colleges’ efforts to create strategy. Available via simple web searches, these sources include the Integrated Postsecondary Data System and its components of financial, student outcomes and comparative institutional data; official population projections published by most states; K-12 enrollment and performance data; and labor market projections. There is little mystery to accessing these data sets and most can quickly produce data at a local or regional level that are immediately useable for community colleges seeking to ask whether their programs and services are aligned with external realities.

Given widespread access to data, it is ironic, if not distressing, that many strategic plans are little more than a collection of aspirations and feel-good platitudes. Data and analytics are required to move these plans to fully address external and internal realities. In a world in which the growth and availability of data multiplies annually, the neglect of information that can guide a college’s future is decidedly shortsighted.

In our experience, at a minimum, a comprehensive and realistic strategic plan requires these analytical elements:

Environmental scans. A close look at the external environment in which the college operates is always critical. Environmental scans, when developed with secondary data sources that are germane to the college’s service area, are most helpful when they form a narrative story. Non-educators, in particular, can find data displays to be daunting and are more likely to need a storyline. Creating a compelling storyline allows the college’s stakeholders to more easily digest the data at hand.

Current student demographics and success rates. Few colleges can draw on a widespread understanding of current student demographics and how those factors impact student success rates. Knowing which types of students enroll and which persist through to completion of a degree, certificate or successful transfer is a solid beginning to strategic thinking. For example, knowing an overall success rate as measured by the proportion of students that complete developmental education, gatekeeper courses and continue on to complete certificates, degrees or successfully transfer is a big first step. Student progression rates can be combined with engagement data from our learning management systems to form even more actionable information.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT). SWOT is a tool that identifies issues from the perceptions of individuals inside and outside organizations. Strengths are the strong parts of the organization that can be directly controlled. Weaknesses, on the other hand, are those elements of the organization that are not positive but can also be controlled. Opportunities and threats operate outside the organization. While they are usually beyond its control, it may be possible for a college to influence their impact; and, it is certainly vital that the college leadership grapple with the dimensions of these challenges by using data and analytics.

Enrollment projections and scenarios. Community college enrollments surged during the recent recession only to fall back when the economy began to improve. This is no surprise. Community college enrollment depends on a complex interplay of factors, not exclusively on economics, however. With this in mind, a college should seek to influence its participation and retention rates. Scenarios that model the effect of increasing recruitment of students from different age categories, for example, are key to helping colleges understand where to productively invest energies. The interplay of a SWOT analysis and Environmental Scan along with an analysis of the institution’s overall success rate as measured by the proportion of students that persist and complete will assist leaders in making informed enrollment projections and scenarios.

Labor market forecasts. Labor Market Information (LMI) data are readily available for all states and frequently are published at a county or regional level. Colleges can use these data to determine whether they are aligned with forecasted workforce needs. Because these data do not always capture recent or local job market events, participation by employers in the strategic planning and curriculum design processes can uncover trends that large-scale databases fail to reveal.

Competitor analysis. A competitor analysis compares postsecondary education programs offered by higher education institutions, public and private, within a 25-mile radius of a suburban or urban college while a wider radius would be used for rural colleges. Such analysis helps colleges identify which of its programs may be redundant and reaffirm which programs already are, or might be candidates for, signature program status. A competitor analysis can also be used to identify those potential programs that no institution offers.

Program vitality. Instructional programming is the heart of all colleges. To be fully strategic, colleges need to integrate data that demonstrates relevance and marketability, not simply enrollment and completion. A five-year trend analysis of the array of classes, locations, and times/days of offering is critical. When  combined with employment projections, as well as takeaways from external and internal planning sessions, a more complete overview of program vitality emerges.

Financial comparisons. Strategic plans that fail to link solidly to operational budgets are doomed to failure. At the same time, decisions about budgets and planning require data, especially comparative data. Key data points include trends in state and local revenue, expenditure patterns, and faculty salaries. It is vital also to understand the balance between student resources and cost of attendance patterns over time. Comparing revenues and expenditures with other community colleges, especially in functional areas, using categories developed by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, provides solid insights for strategic thinking. Of perennial interest among stakeholders is the comparative proportion of institutional expenditures allocated to instruction, academic support and student services.

Student engagement. Integration of student engagement data drawn from course management systems with student demographics and success rates can lead to widespread adoption of new learning strategies. Similarly, comparative data produced through institutional participation, for example, by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement helps institutional stakeholders think deeply about where specific gaps in student interactions with the institution exist. Planning to close those gaps is strategic in value and a key to improving student experience to improve overall student success rates.

In summary, colleges would do well to abandon the idea that educational analytics is a passing fad and embrace it as a key input in creating college strategy. Rather, digging into data and using that data to make strategic decisions (including decisions about student learning and progression), is more than fashionable. It is foundational for effective and transformative institutional strategy.

REFERENCES Bichsel, J. (2012, August).

Analytics in Higher Education: Benefits, Barriers, Progress, and Recommendations. Louisville, CO: Educause Center for Research. Retrieved January 2, 2014 at http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1207/ers1207.pdf.

Richard A. Voorhees is principal of the Voorhees Group LLC.

He consults widely with community colleges in the areas of strategic planning, online learning, and competency-based approaches to educational delivery. Deborah Johansen is a division dean at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colo. She oversees ten academic departments and serves as a member of the college’s Strategy Council.

This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the Center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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