Published on 2014/04/07

A Closer Look: Data-Driven Decision Making

A Closer Look: Data-Driven Decision Making
In order to use data to understand institutional trends and needs, postsecondary leaders must be clear about why each piece of data is being collected, and what it means.
Like most online education programs, our adult degree program saw tremendous growth over the past five years. Again, like most online education programs, managing the growth became top priority.

Decisions had to be made without the luxury of time to truly consider long-term impact. Because of the demand for online education, there really were no wrong decisions. Students, adults especially, wanted the flexibility, access and convenience online courses and degrees provided, so these programs continued to grow, no matter what.

At some point, however, the program’s success will be at risk if decisions continue to be made in a vacuum or solely as a reaction to the most recent provocations. The best decisions are those made with reliable data. The challenge of data-driven decision making is not deciding which data is needed; rather, it’s understanding why you need it. A plethora of data is available in any program, but separating what is interesting from what will help you make better decisions is the crucial step in the process.

To help determine what you want to measure, you have to understand why you’re measuring it. How will the data help you? The Education Advisory Board (EAB) suggests three reasons for gathering data:

  1. Assess the size and scope of your operations
  2. Measure the efficiency of your work
  3. Determine the effectiveness of your efforts

With that framework in mind, there are several key performance indicators (KPI) that can be measured in each of these categories. In addition, you can use this framework under specific areas of your operations. For our operations, I have chosen four areas with significant impact on our overall operations and where the knowledge regarding size/scope, efficiency and effectiveness will provide the information needed to make better decisions.

The four areas are financial management, admissions, enrollment and retention. KPIs in each of these areas allow for a better understanding of what we need to reach the next level. Once you determine what you’re measuring and why, determining the reports and data needed becomes a much easier process. There are a few metrics to help measure each of these elements. For example, number of applicants, admits, and enrolled are metrics that establish the size and scope of the operations for admissions whereas staff time per student measures your efficiency. Effectiveness is measured by your acceptance rate.

Data is all around us and keeping up with it can be a tremendous challenge. Without a clear understanding of both “what” and “why” regarding data, you can run reports daily without a clear reason for doing so. Realizing there’s specific data that can move your program forward to help reach goals will clarify which metrics to choose and what data to pull.

With practice, as specific challenges arise, you will be more familiar with the data you have and more selective of what data you will need to meet a particular challenge. With regular review of your KPIs, you will be able to forecast trends and identify issues early, allowing you more flexibility as an organization and security in the knowledge that the decisions you make are based on solid data.

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Readers Comments

Glenda Cullen 2014/04/07 at 9:55 am

Trombley makes an important distinction between deciding what data is needed and why it’s needed. I agree that an understanding of the latter will lead to better decision making. Simply collecting any and all data available will only lead to confusion about what is helpful and what is extraneous.
Does anyone have any recommendations/experience on how to make that distinction?

James Branden 2014/04/07 at 4:14 pm

I would add that the data required may be different according changing needs so, when you collect data based on a particular problem you’re trying to solve, it’s easier to get the appropriate data. In contrast, when you’re just collecting every bit of data, or only a certain type of data, you can greatly limit its useability.

Christina Trombley 2014/04/11 at 12:52 pm

Start with the “why” first. What is it that you are trying to do — grow the program, increase retention, find new markets? Once you have identified your goals, thus helping to answer why, then you can focus on the what. Trying to grow a program, find out where your current students are coming from. Trying to increase retention? Find out your retention rates and track why students aren’t completing.

Hope this helps!

Alan Ng 2014/04/14 at 4:36 pm

I would add a fifth area of evaluation that has proved very useful over the years for noncredit programs, which has been even higher priority for me than even retention or admissions KPI (well, admissions is usually not relevant in the noncredit market):

Evaluation of the success of program marketing. That data informs far more than just what advertising investments to make: it also informs what programs to offer and identifies student-perceived strengths and weaknesses in existing programs, ranging from academic content to instructors to registration hassles.

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