Published on 2018/09/05
The EvoLLLution | Leveraging National Student Clearinghouse Data in Continuing Education Management
The use of big data is revolutionizing the way that BYU’s Salt Lake Center is connecting with non-traditional students and exposing administrators to the changing realities of higher education.

While many institutions understand the value of understanding their learners, few have taken the necessary steps to make that information—and the insights they glean—part of their operating procedures. Brigham Young University (BYU)’s Salt Lake Center leveraged data from the National Student Data Clearinghouse to conduct an in-depth data analysis of the students coming through their division. In this interview, Scott Howell and Julie Swallow reflect on the initial findings of the analysis, and point to how big data can help continuing education divisions effect meaningful, strategic change.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you decide to make data a central part of BYU Salt Lake Center’s operations?

Scott Howell (SH): Well informed decisions lead to successful outcomes, and relevant, real-time, reliable data is critical to those outcomes.

I’ve been at BYU Salt Lake Center for eight years and received my doctorate in assessment and measurement, so data has always been a big concern for me. BYU’s recent acquisition of Tableau, a data analytics software package, has really allowed us to leverage data in new and exciting ways. The Salt Lake Center, which is our continuing education college at BYU, has also invested in research personnel that have really helped us better understand our markets.

Evo: What are some of the key tools and resources that you need to analyze big data?

SH: You need big data tools. Excel just won’t cut it. Increasing numbers of higher education institutions and corporations in general are turning to new analytics tools to drive growth, such as Google Analytics. One of the leading tools is Tableau, but there are a number of others that are allowing us to not only analyze data but also visualize the results. That makes it more interpretable—and therefore useful—to administrators.

Evo: Can you speak a little more about the value of visualizations in making data digestible to administrators who aren’t necessarily data minded?

SH: I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that you can have all the data in the world, but it’s no good unless you use it. Visualization tools make big data very user friendly. They translate incredibly complex data into simple and interpretable results. That shift in user-friendliness has really helped advance the use of big data in the last couple of years. By synthesizing complex information into accessible graphs, charts and tables, we can introduce a whole new team of administrators to data that can help them be more strategic in their decision making.

Evo: My understanding is that one of the biggest roadblocks to getting data from its raw form into something that can be analyzed, visualized and acted upon is the process of “cleaning” the data. How did data cleaning pose a challenge for your team?

SH: We wouldn’t have been able to undertake this initiative if we didn’t have experts on our team who were able to clean the data properly. In most projects of this scope, 90 percent of the work is clean up, and 10 percent is analysis. We had to merge some of our demographic data with raw data from the National Student Clearinghouse, and our analysis and interpretation would have been meaningless if we’d not cleaned the data.

The data scientist assigned to work on our project is a graduating statistics student. He worked 20 hours a week for two weeks, solely on cleaning up the data. When his supervisor asked him what he’d learned from the process, he responded that he was surprised at how much time it took. The impulse is to jump into the analysis, but you can’t short circuit the data preparation process.

Evo: What were some of the most surprising insights the data revealed?

Julie Swallow (JS): The data helped us better understand where students were interested in going once they left us. I think a lot of us assumed that since students came to BYU Salt Lake Center, they wanted to go exclusively to BYU Provo, and we learned that wasn’t the case. In fact, many of our students end up going to Salt Lake Community College. This enabled us to start making key partnerships to support these student movement patterns: Our academic advisors started to correspond with Salt Lake Community College in a more meaningful way than they’d been doing before.

We also learned that most of our students go on to graduate at other institutions. That was really positive—we were pleased to know that our students’ educational journeys don’t end with us. Many go on to successfully finish their degrees.

SH: I recently came back from presenting the results of this study to the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators (NABCA), and it was almost standing room only. I’ve presented at NABCA for many years, but I can’t recall a time when a particular topic was of more interest. The audience peppered me with so many questions I couldn’t even get through my presentation.

There were a lot of surprises in the data. We looked at a ten-year window from 2004 to 2014 and found that almost 4,000 non-matriculated students had come through BYU Salt Lake in that time. We don’t offer degree-granting programs, so we knew that we were an interim stop for most students but we were intrigued to see how many of them ended up getting a degree.

To build on what Julie said, we had no idea where we were in a student’s educational journey. Were we the first or second or fourth institution that students passed through? Our data revealed that, for one-third of the 4,000 students that had come through our doors in ten years, we were the first institution they chose. For 39 percent, we were the second institution they attended. For 21 percent we were the third, and for 7 percent we were the fourth in their educational journey. That speaks to something we all know, which is that millennial students are more mobile than their predecessors, including in how they access education. They’re not loyal to one institution. They’re willing to go elsewhere if they feel it will better serve them.

One of the surprises for me was that BYU Salt Lake Center has more male students than female. That’s contrary to national trends—in higher education, almost every institution has 5 to 10 percent more female students. That caught us off guard; I actually challenged the data scientist on that one. It raises a number of questions that lead us to want to do an even deeper analysis. Why are we a magnet for more male students than female students?

These revelations also provide us with insights we can use to better direct our marketing efforts. For instance, why, for the 39 percent of students for whom we were the second choice, did they leave their first institution and come to us? Why did students leave BYU Salt Lake Center? What needs weren’t we meeting? We didn’t know enough to ask the right questions before, but now we’re learning what questions need to be asked and we can undertake further research to understand the whys as well as the whats.

Evo: Coming out of this first set of data, have there been any significant changes or transformations in your operations at Salt Lake Center?

SH: Interestingly enough, one of the deans we shared this data with recommended that we apply this research to a sister department known as the Bachelor of General Studies (BGS). That’s an external degree program which is intended to help former BYU students complete their degrees. To build enrollment in this program, administrators had been sending out marketing materials specifically targeted at students that our records showed had started at BYU but never finished. However, the campaign has caused no small stir among that audience, many of whom were irritated at receiving marketing materials that invited them to, “Come finish what you started at BYU.” In fact, a lot of them did finish their bachelor degree—they just did so elsewhere, so the marketing materials weren’t relevant to them.

The dean saw how we could apply our research to BGS marketing efforts. We can take the BYU non-completion database and map it against the national student clearinghouse database to find out which BYU students completed their degree elsewhere. That will allow us to mitigate the number of complaints and develop more tailored marketing materials.

Evo: You mentioned that the data shows how BYU fits into a student’s educational pathway: where they are coming from and where they might be going to. What does that mean in terms of defining partnerships or transfer agreements with those different schools to create a more streamlined process for learners?

JS: As I mentioned before, our academic advisors are starting to do more outreach with some of the schools that the data shows are a good fit with students who don’t get a degree with BYU. For example, we’ve been working with a local community college to get a better understanding of what they can offer our students, and how we can better streamline the student transfer process.

SH: We recently sent a few of our academic advisors to the local community college to participate in their college fair. We were surprised by how many of these community college students had questions about what it would take to be admitted to BYU Salt Lake Center. That experience really speaks to the need for us to have a better relationship with these institutions. We’ve not really interacted very much with these other institutions in the past, but now we can see that there’s real value in developing those relationships.

Another point of interest was that almost half of our students are coming from a public institution. As a private institution, that’s quite surprising. There are so many intriguing data points that we’re still trying to understand. For example, 60 percent of our students are half-time or less, which tells us we’re dealing with a predominantly non-traditional audience.

These data points raise all kinds of answers to questions we couldn’t have even asked before. What’s the average age of our students when they graduate? How many years did it take for those who graduated to do so? How many states did our students move between to finally get their degree? On average, how many institutions did students who received their degree attend?

We have the answers, and it’s a rich pool of data. We’re so early in the process that we’re still scratching our heads trying to determine what it all means, but I was just really pleased when the deans saw the value of these kinds of data queries to help solve other management issues throughout the college.

Evo: What advice would you share with other leaders looking to make data a part of their operating practice?

SH: You can’t survive any longer without having robust data to help drive decision making.  Student enrollments have been declining steadily over the past seven years, so there’s greater competition and a greater need for us to provide students with the services they want—often in ways that some of us older administrators aren’t familiar with. We’re targeting millennial students. They think differently, they act differently, and they live in a much more mobile world. Higher ed has to take that into account.

We’re also seeing more competition from online learning providers. A lot of millennials are interested in doing what they can from the convenience of their homes, without setting foot on a brick-and-mortar campus. So, I think it’s critical for us to know and understand our students: what intrigues and interests them, and what they need, rather than what we think they need. This data is revealing all kinds of nuances that can help us better understand them.

That said, data tools only go so far. You also need skilled assessment measurement professionals who can clean up and help you interpret the data. I think that’s an often overlooked and misunderstood part of the process, but it comes back to data visualization and making the data relevant to administrators and key decision makers. A lot of them ask, “So what? We’ve been doing what we’re doing for years—why are we now asking these questions we’ve never asked before?” Given the challenges of sagging enrollments and increased competition, we need to ask these questions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • NSC data provides a benchmark against which institutions can compare to better understand their place in a larger academic context.
  • For colleges, universities and divisions that tend to send and receive students to and from other institutions, it’s critical to be able to map the paths of those learners to help improve marketing efforts on the one hand, and program development on the other.