We talk about making data-driven decisions in the industry all the time. It is often added in leadership job descriptions and talked about at length when we think about strategic enrollment plans and getting institutions to the next goal. It is a term that is frequently used, but after working at several universities, and working with countless colleges in my role now, it is clear that this is an area we all still struggle with.

When we think about data, we think about pulling reports and using previous history and metrics to help guide how we move forward. Which is great in theory, but often times we seem to have muddled data that may be inaccurate or data just takes forever to drill down into. When you’re being asked to be nimble and meet the ever changing needs of the college-going students of today, sometimes these data-driven decisions are actually made based off of partial data or even gut decisions.

1. Everyone Pulling Data Gets a Different Result

One school I worked at kept all final enrollment data with a central data office, which reported statistics for IPEDS. The problem was that the data this office pulled always seemed to be off from what the admissions office had, even if it was only by a few students here and there. There was a lot of time spent reconciling and guesstimating what was and was not accurate from the “official” numbers, and ultimately, no one really knew which report was right since they all seemed to report different counts.

2. Only One Person Knows How to Access Your Data

Another school I worked at implemented a CRM solution, but never did an accurate snapshot of where they were before implementation. The only way to pull numbers from a few year history was to ask the Vice President of Enrollment Management, who would then open up an archived folder from the SIS. She would then mine the data to try to pull out any relevant information she could find. There were several things wrong with this scenario: there was one gatekeeper to this data, it took forever to get to the data, and there was no way to verify what was being pulled.

3. You’re using your gut to make decisions

Other times, I see decisions being made based off of what has been done in the past, or what we think students may want. This is what we refer to as a gut decision, and there is typically no data backing this kind of choice. Sometimes these gut decisions work out great! If you are in the field for a long time, and do a lot of research and have made prior data-driven decisions, your instincts are probably spot on. Just remember that you sometimes have to get creative or think outside of the box and try something new. Sometimes that means making some gut decisions. It is when we rely only on these gut instincts and not true strategic data-driven decisions, that we get into trouble.

4. You’re not looking at (or snapshotting) last year’s data

Things change from year to year, whether that is the economy, programs on campus, press (positive and negative), etc., things will not always look the same from one year to the next. With that said, it is silly to think that we can make decisions without looking at the past. Year over year data tells a story, and when you’re not looking at a few years’ worth of data, it can be hard to see trends and outliers. Data weaves together a framework, highlighting trends and themes that could otherwise be missed.

5. Your data’s not specific enough

The above examples highlight the overall issues that can arise with year over year data, but what about when it comes time to schedule an event, and you want to look back on prior records to choose the best date and time possible? Or, what about when you are trying to assign counselor or recruiter territories? What if you’re considering retention, and need to compare what current students are doing or not doing, and they compare to the same time last year. If we don’t have accurate and specific data, how do we make data-driven decisions?

So, what can we do about it?

Key Tips

  • Decide what data will be used and standardized on campus. If you have data stored across various platforms, it may make sense to standardize what data is accurate and where it is coming from.
  • Death by committee is a real thing, but data is that important, so it’s possible that a data governance committee is needed on your campus. Remember: there are a lot of offices, and a lot of data, so you want to make sure you are all working from the same set of numbers.
  • Don’t be afraid to dig in. It can be scary and down right intimidating if you find a discrepancy in the data. Just remember that once you figure out what is wrong, you can fix it and find a way to move forward. It’s always better to fix errors when you find them, rather than keep using the wrong data.
  • Make sure you are tracking things accurately. Some questions to ask yourself: Are things reporting over original data? Is your first lead source intact, or are you writing over it? What about tracking event attendance? Each piece of data paints a story and can help you determine where you are and where you want to go. A good CRM should be able to track everything, and it’s important to make sure that there is a place for each data piece to go.
  • Leverage technology. Data analysis is hard, but there are tools out there to help make it easier. The TargetX Insights tool allows schools to easily see their data, and know that they’re getting an accurate snapshot of their enrollment and event goals. No more pulling reports and wondering if they’re right, or getting different results depending on who pulls the information.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that data challenges are incredibly common. Whether a school is big or small, public or private, data can be a problem regardless of size or type. We know data is challenging, but It is also one of the key components to a college or university’s success.