It is a term thrown around every time a school mentions its use of data – analytics will make the institution more “efficient.” But what does that mean when it comes to the world of higher education?
Does a particular process become more efficient? Does the school run more smoothly overall? Is it saving time or is it saving money? The answer can include all of those things. Here are some specific ways analytics can make an institution of higher education more efficient, and how sometimes efficiency can mean thinking outside the box…or outside the mailbox, as the case may be.
As in any business, schools are finding that automated analytics tools are helping them produce results in a faster way. But this means more than just the fact that they are no longer producing reports in Excel.
By investing a little more time setting up a new tool, organizations are saving themselves a lot of work down the road. Tufts University, for example, created an Office of Budget and Planning, which it calls its “Budget Center” in an effort to make its administrative processes more efficient. The Budget Center works with departments across the university to collect data that is used in all aspects of university life – from grant requests to hiring. Most importantly, though, all of the data is recorded in a uniform way. This consistency university-wide allows for standardized reports to be produced quickly and in a way that everyone across the campus can understand.
A recent University Business survey showed that about 66% of higher education finance professionals believe their current institution’s business model is not sustainable for the next 5-to-10 years. It also showed that in 2018 those higher education finance professionals saw financial resources as the biggest organizational challenge. That’s why colleges and universities are always looking for new and more efficient procedures that can save them money.
For some schools this is centered on retention, where if schools can keep the students that are already enrolled, they will spend less than bringing in a new student. Institutions of higher education are constantly revamping the way they alert professors to struggling students (or, increasingly, potentially struggling students, based on data gathered on students from their classes as soon as they enroll in the school), and the support systems they have in place.
Schools are also looking at elements like transportation. The University of North Texas analyzed data by laying maps of transportation routes over maps of off-campus student housing. The school found bus routes that could be eliminated that would not reduce service in a significant way that saved the school almost $450,000.
Most schools have the data they need to make decisions that will help them become more efficient. Sometimes it’s the creative ways of thinking about how to use that data that can help make the difference.
For example, an increase in students’ online shopping resulted in a significant increase in packages delivered to college campuses. That got officials at Vanderbilt University thinking differently about their mailroom and how to better serve students. The school looked at the numbers and eliminated 7,000 student mailboxes. It used the 4,000 square feet the move opened up to install 500 intelligent parcel lockers, or smart lockers. When a package arrives, a student is notified by e-mail with an access code and instructions about where to pick up their package. The school can now serve more students at a time and move them more quickly through the mail center. Other schools have used Vanderbilt as a model to make their own mail processes more efficient.
Some in the world of higher education view the automation process and the idea of making work more efficient as a threat – thinking it will eliminate jobs. Many colleges and universities, though, are using efficiency measures as an opportunity to reorganize responsibilities.
In some cases, this means some people who were doing too much will be doing less, and in other cases, people can be given more responsibility, including analyzing the data themselves. Some of that work includes strategic planning for what lies ahead. In that way, by using data to become more efficient and get a better handle on the present, schools are creating time that will allow them to look to the future.
John has more than a decade of experience in education as a teacher, board member, and communicator. He also spent several years in sports journalism. John graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and from Lesley University with a master’s degree in elementary education.