Published on 2014/10/08
Data-Driven Decision Making: Bringing CE’s Secret to the Main Campus
Data responsiveness means continuing education units focus on what the market is looking for, leading to greater demand and improved returns.
The analogy that women are from Venus and men from Mars might be applied to how the CE unit and the main campus view and analyze student data. Each has their own appropriate perspective and rationale for what data is important and why.

The expectation to create revenue and return the ‘excess’ to the main campus is a major driving force for the CE unit and its quest for data and analysis. CE units:

  • Study the fiscal data points that reflect measurable information;

  • Examine enrollments, credit hours and revenue – each by face-to-face (f2f), online, undergraduate and graduate;

  • Review students’ course evaluations;

  • Rely on innovative marketing efforts with emphasis on web based;

  • Use Google Analytics to better understand web-based marketing results;

  • Examine online course help desk calls from instructors and students;

  • Determine total enrollments per course, f2f and online, undergraduate and graduate;

  • and the list goes on.

If analyzed and interpreted correctly followed by appropriate and timely actions, these could all contribute to the financial growth and success of the CE unit as well as helping to meet student needs.

The main campus, on the other hand, tends to follow the proposition, “build it and they will come.” Data and its analysis take on a different purpose. Why?

  • Faculty members are already hired to teach courses;

  • Students are often taking courses that follow a prescribed track;

  • Undergraduate students are expected to be on campus for at least four years; and

  • Marketing is only focused on high schools — a known location.

There are also many other campus concerns: fundraising, research, building construction and political pressures that draw attention away from the primary mission of students and learning. This is not intended in any way to reduce the importance of the work that campus officials must address. It’s just different from the CE unit and impacts what data is collected and how it is analyzed.

With this backdrop, it’s important for campus officials to understand what the CE unit is doing, has accomplished and is planning to do from the data/information presented. As CE leaders, this is our responsibility and challenge to effectively communicate. As an example, the question, “how many students did the CE unit have” could result in a number of answers depending on whether we’re talking about full-time students, course enrollments or unique student course enrollments. The campus generally counts their full-time students while the CE unit may have few full-time CE students taking a full course load. If the CE unit uses ‘course enrollments’ as a data point, then it must be clear what the number actually measures. The CE unit must take the initiative to assure their data is understandable to the main campus … not the other way around.

The one data point that resonates with everyone is revenue. Money the CE unit generates is important to the campus as a valuable revenue stream, one that hopefully grows. Sometimes growth is due to fee increases that could create a false sense of growth and might diminish the necessity to increase credit-hour generation. Credit hours generated should always be presented with revenue so the connection between them is fully understood. Course enrollment on its own can be deceiving — how many credit hours is each course? There’s a significant difference in revenue between a one- and a four-credit-hour course.

The data and the analysis the CE unit provides to the campus must be relevant and meaningful in order for campus officials to fully understand and appreciate the CE unit’s results. This in turn can become a means for more campus support for the CE unit as well as improved understanding.

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Readers Comments

Lisa C 2014/10/08 at 9:45 am

I think there is a downside to being so data-driven, though. Sometimes it would be nice to be able to run high-prestige programs, or public good programs, without being under the shadow of analytics.

    Nancy Rodriguez 2014/10/08 at 12:12 pm

    I actually agree with this – if every school becomes fully data-driven, they’ll all wind up running the same programs and serving the same audiences.

Dwayne P. 2014/10/08 at 3:47 pm

I disagree with both of the previous comments… I think all institutions serve different audiences and have different missions. That differentiation will push them to create programming that appeals to their market demographic and they will become more and more successful. The schools that fail will be the ones that fail to distinguish themselves.

Rose Han 2014/10/08 at 7:03 pm

For me, one of the greatest differentiators between CE units and the rest of campus is the former’s willingness to innovate. That kind of mindset simply doesn’t (yet) exist in non-CE units. As McClure says, the dominant theme in traditional higher ed has been “build it and they will come” and, in the post-Second World War period, such a mentality managed to drive enrollment. Today’s prospective students are looking for a more personalized and responsive experience in higher ed. Data helps us to identify exactly what they’re looking for. Institutions that cling to the culture of the past won’t do well in this new market.

Kathleen Simmons 2014/10/09 at 9:31 am

I agree that data can be valuable in decision making. I just want to add that we need to define “data” broadly. The conversations we’ve been having in higher ed around the use of data today tend to refer to hard data — collected by CRMs and other info-culling systems we now use. However, I believe there’s a role for “soft” data — experiences of older staff (especially those in front-line work, like enrollment), student feedback, best practices passed down the generations and so on. Just because we’re moving into an age where hard data is easy to access, doesn’t mean we should completely forego what, in fact, worked for hundreds of years to attract students and serve their needs.

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