What Are the Best Uses for Data Science at Universities?

Big Data, Analytics and Predictive Analysis in Higher Education

The college experience for students is a wonderful (and sometimes confusing) journey of experimentation and a quest for knowledge, purpose, and direction.  It is a trial and error period of finding one’s way. It’s meeting lifelong friends because you happen to be assigned to the same dorm.

It’s potentially meeting your soulmate because you both took a seat near the reflection pool by the quad. And it’s changing your major because one of your roommates is fired up about his most recent classes. Until it’s not.

Data analytics has provided amazing insights in all industries. In higher education, student retention is more important than ever, with one recent report showing that universities could increase profits by $1M annually if they could increase it.  At the same time, only 29% of universities are using data analysis for operating decisions. So, where should we begin our Business Intelligence roadmap? Let’s take a look at some of the trends in higher education and see where we may wish to focus resources.

Business Needs of a University

Let’s not forget that higher education is a business, with many of its functions no different than any other organization. There is still payroll to process, benefits and other HR data to handle, and a bottom line to calculate. It’s complicated by other “buckets” of data, such as student information that may reside in Banner or similar ERP, financial aid data, etc. BI solutions can pull that data together for faster analysis and time savings.

Some studies report a company could expect more than $13 back on every dollar spent on BI. Companies who analyze data see an average of 8% increase in revenue and a 10% reduction in costs, an 18% swing in bottom line.

Higher education isn’t exactly a retailer, but it’s a business and there are certainly efficiencies to be captured. Yet, while 81% of universities have invested in technology for the benefit of students, fewer than 30% have invested in operations analysis.

Data analytics can provide benefits in many areas, but perhaps the best place for universities to start their BI quest is to lay the foundation in their business operations environment, as it will likely bring quicker ROI and clarity to more advanced efforts. Let’s look at some other higher education BI uses.

Move Students Through in Four Years

Another data use in higher education is focusing on escorting students through the college process for a bachelor’s degree within four years. On average, only 31% of students at public colleges get their bachelor’s degree in four years and only 56% graduate within six years. Governments and universities have begun looking at ways to more efficiently move students through the process. The state of Tennessee even distributes university funding partly by measuring how effective an institution is at graduating students.

Many universities, after analyzing years of student grades, are finding a correlation between a particular class grade and overall success within a major. Interestingly, it’s usually not an introductory class within a major that provides the insight.

More often, it seems to be a foundation class, such as math or literature. This allows the universities to provide more math/literature resources for that student, providing more likely success and financial savings for the student as well as better retention for the university.

That’s not the only reason for needing more than four years for a bachelor’s degree, of course. I took five years to finish mine. While you can queue up the Tommy Boy reference, the fact is I was working to put myself through college, so went to a local community college.

When I transferred to the University of Michigan Architecture program, they would not accept me without Art I and II, which my college didn’t offer. Really, guys? It’s learning the color wheel. I can do that simultaneously without paying for an additional year. So, Selma Blair and I never sat together near the reflection pool by the quad and hit it off, so she’ll never know what she missed.

Unfortunately, there may not be any data analytics to help me there. Besides, Michigan State’s Spartan Nation is one stronger because of it and you get to read this riveting blog, compliments of a Creative Writing degree at Jackson College. You’re welcome.

Help Students Find Their Area of Interest

Some universities are utilizing an eAdvisor system that makes a freshman choose a major and selects classes relevant to that major for them. No more choosing exploratory classes to find your way. If you’re thinking Psychology, you’re taking Statistics right out of the chute.

This allows students to take relevant classes early that will give them a feel for whether they’ll enjoy and be successful within a curriculum, again saving time, money and helping with retention. The only downside is I would have had a hard time choosing toppings for the pizza I would pick at from an unrefrigerated shelf in my dorm room for the next four days, much less a major on my first day.

Recruit Students Who Will Stay

Now, I’m one of those people creeped out by ads for something I just shopped for showing up on an unrelated site, but browser tracking data has also found its way into higher education. Some universities are tracking how many photos a prospective student has uploaded to social media and using that as a factor in recruitment.

Are traditional factors still considered? Of course. But some institutions feel this is data that helps them choose students that will stick around and they’ve noticed an improvement in retention when using this methodology.

From a university’s standpoint, you certainly want to attract students who will complete the programs and improve retention. Now, there’s a balance to consider, as you can argue that there may be a socioeconomic factor there as well, as those who have limited access to the internet would face yet another hurdle. However, it’s an example of how data analysis can add so many tools to the toolbox.


While the more complex uses of data collection and analysis are compelling, the stark stats reverberate and bear repeating. While 81% of universities have invested in technology for the benefit of students and 41% of colleges are using data for forecasting and predictive, only 29% of universities are using data analysis for operating decisions.

It may be best to start your BI at the ground floor with traditional operations and get that BI initiative underway. It can only help your more advanced initiatives. If you haven’t started down the path of getting your data in order, now is the time. At least get started, have a plan, and start realizing ROI.  Build as you go if necessary, but just like your 401K, starting now may be more important than how much you invest later. Catching up for lost time is an uphill, and often expensive, battle. For some thoughts on how to get your Business Intelligence plan started at your college or university, check out this blog on how to collect and prepare data with a long-term vision.

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By |2018-09-02T17:39:42+00:00January 16th, 2018|Business, Business Intelligence, Kingfisher, Universes, University|0 Comments

About the Author:

Jason is the Marketing/Creative Director at Kingfisher. While he can’t juggle (yet), his background in marketing, advertising, web design, creative writing, journalism and news media allow him to juggle the many hats necessary to be worn in a small marketing department. When he’s not on the ice playing hockey, he can be reached at Jason.Bennitt@kingfisherinc.com.