Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on how business intelligence is impacting higher education institutions. Read the first installment on predictive analytics and financial aid. Read the third installment on social media analytics in the classroom.
Given the economic climate for state-sponsored institutions these days, business intelligence (BI) software and programs have become more important than ever for higher education, according to Matthew Helm, the director of business intelligence and technology solutions at Illinois State University.
“BI is seen as so critical in making decisions within the university,” he said.
Illinois State University is just now building its BI program, in addition to implementing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
While BI is helping college administrative teams make better business decisions when it comes to budgets, staffing or class offerings, it's also making its mark inside the classroom and helping to set the stage before a student even declares a college preference.
Business intelligence and enrollment management
The Massachusetts-based Maguire Associates is among a number of consultancies helping institutions of higher education use BI software in areas such as branding, market research and even enrollment management.
“The college and university world is very sophisticated now,” said Linda Cox Maguire, vice chairman of Maguire Associates. “Enrollment managers are collectors of lots of data that’s stored in lots of different places.”
The term enrollment management, coined by Jack Maguire (Linda’s husband) who founded the consulting firm, came about in the 1970s as a way of approaching financial aid strategies and admissions operations more strategically. Today, that term pushes against the boundaries of recruitment and delves into the area of student retention and alumni engagement as well.
“This is about driving in and controlling revenue,” Maguire said. “Most institutions in this country are quite tuition-dependent.”
But pinpointing prospective students who will attend, who will persist through to graduation, what kind of financial aid services will be needed and who is likely to become an alumni donor after leaving the institution can be a daunting -- if fiscally necessary -- task.
“Multiple millions of dollars are at stake when building a freshmen class,” said Kathleen Dawley, president of Maguire Associates.
BI tools and market connections
Before firms like Maguire Associates existed, admissions officers served as enrollment managers, even if they didn’t have the title to go along with the position, Dawley said. Without the help of predictive analytics tools, they sorted through and selected the applicants they thought would fill the appropriate number of spots on the roster.
“In a sense, higher education has had to think about predicting the future more so than some businesses,” Dawley said. “There’s a certain capacity for its services, and more people are vying for that capacity than there are spots.”
The tools may have helped to refine the process over the years, but the mission -- and the focus on student quality -- has not changed.
“Data makes the case,” Dawley said, “but values drive the decisions.”
When helping colleges and universities fully grasp the markets they’re serving, Maguire Associates turns to data sources such as ACT and SAT test scores, U.S. Census data and the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that acts as a repository for degree and enrollment verification. They also look at students who pass on an invitation to attend one university and try to determine where those students ultimately decided to attend.
The consulting firm utilizes predictive modeling, as well as attitudinal research and qualitative analytics, to measure open-ended survey responses from students. Doing so allows Maguire Associates to push beyond the “socially acceptable responses” in a typical survey and uncover the real reasons why a student decided to attend.
“We’ve also moved into the direction of online focus groups,” Maguire said, adding that this enables a large number of participants to express opinions about an institution. Maguire Associates hopes this helps colleges and universities look beyond their own worlds and better understand their markets.
And like in the corporate world, BI integration at universities and colleges can be held back by information stored in disparate places, Maguire said, sometimes leaving pieces such as enrollment management in silos.
“We think it’s important for enrollment managers to develop their own strategies that contribute to the strategic plan as a whole,” Maguire said.
Beyond enrollment management
Enrollment is also intimately tied to tuition and financial aid, and as the country emerges from the biggest recession it’s seen since the Great Depression, institutions of higher education continue to feel the effects.
“One area we’ve experienced a considerable increase in demand is support of pricing and financial aid strategy,” Dawley said. “Our client base is expanding to include very large public institutions as they seek to bring in more out-of-state students to expand their budget from state sponsorship.”
Dawley calls this a “sophisticated area of work” that teeters on competition while maximizing revenue possibilities.
Maguire Associates is also partnering with the SAS Institute to build a new, hosted portal so that analytics work “can be done faster, deeper and better,” Dawley said. That kind of a platform could help the consulting firm provide real-time analytics to its clients.
“This is very new for most places,” she said, “and it’s an exciting frontier.”