When you have nearly 38,000 students enrolled in your university, the data challenges are formidable. At The University of Alabama, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) team works with administrators to make sure that data is used effectively to help students–and the university–prosper.

Lorne Kuffel, executive director of OIRA, leads a team that uses analytics and data visualization to analyze and report on the university’s enrollment and retention goals.

OIRA produces official data for enrollment and staff reporting for Alabama, which is also sent to the state and federal government. Kuffel’s team also does a great deal of internal analyses based on that data to help monitor the general operations of the university.

The OIRA team monitors things like the graduation rates of our students, and the fail and withdrawal rates associated with specific courses. They look at time-to-degree information, faculty teaching loads and salary analyses for Alabama compared to peer institutions.

In addition, they receive 500 to 600 information requests annually, which they attempt to answer within 10 working days. Much of the time, they respond within 24 hours because many requests seek similar information. The institutional data knowledge and analytics expertise of the OIRA staff are essential in providing accurate information, quickly.

How Analytics and Data Visualization has Transformed Alabama’s IR Efforts

Nine years ago, like many university IR offices, Alabama’s was manually pulling information, printing it on pieces of paper, and transcribing that information into spreadsheets that were distributed as responses. It was a tedious and time-consuming process.

1. It Eliminates Tedious Work

By incorporating analytics, OIRA was able to eliminate a great deal of that work. They could pull the information, create data files, perform analyses, and produce and send output in a streamlined manner, requiring much fewer work hours per project. Before adding analytics, turnaround on projects was typically several weeks, or even months. Now, it’s just minutes or a few days.

2. It Provides Better Quality

In addition, the quality and complexity of the work has greatly increased.

3. It Helps with Retention Efforts

Analytics has yielded some unexpected insights to inform retention efforts. Kuffel’s team was surprised to find a correlation between a student asking for an official transcript and them leaving the university. Prior to using analytics, that was an unknown indicator. Now, the university realizes the request is a huge red flag, and is actually the best indicator of a student leaving the university in their first year.

It is a simple but critical correlation that the administration to identify students early on and reach out to provide resources to help them and, hopefully, keep them on campus.

4. It’s Flexible, Allowing for Dynamic Uses

OIRA has also added data visualization to provide reports that are dynamic for administrators to use. They can select different items within a report–such as enrollments or faculty numbers over time–and see what the data looks like by college, race, sex or other demographics. The data changes dynamically as filters change.

5. It Promotes Admin Engagement

Administrators are empowered to go in and play with the data themselves, giving them the information they need to implement different policies for the university. They are able to quickly evaluate “what if” situations, and dive down into the data to see what’s happening and spot patterns with students. They can examine the credits students have earned in a certain time period, their first semester GPAs, etc. OIRA can add other parameters to a report fairly easily, giving leaders a dynamic presentation as opposed to just a table or graph.

(Next page: Future steps; how analytics is helping students)

Looking Ahead to More Users, and More Reports

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Currently, administrators in academic affairs, student affairs and the president’s office are using the reports, but Kuffel expects that number to grow, as will the number of analyses.

For instance, OIRA is building a dashboard showing the performance of the seven vice presidents’ offices. In the future, those offices will use reports to demonstrate how they are performing and moving the institution forward.

The data visualization reports will also replace the university’s external fact book, which contains standard static information about the institution. Kuffel envisions a broad, dynamic institutional information presentation in the future.

How Do Students Benefit?

Ultimately, OIRA’s goal is to help Alabama provide an exceptional education that takes students through graduation. OIRA helps departments and programs improve course offerings. And the university is better equipped to identify and intervene with students who are struggling academically.

To support this effort, OIRA builds intricate data modeling procedures to focus on very small groups of students. They can look at individual communities, counties and high schools to see if there is something about a high school or a transfer college that has an impact on a student being more successful or less successful. Through the analysis, administrators can determine the right type of services and support to offer students to get them on track to graduate.

Ideally, students would graduate with minimal debt. In the future, OIRA will use analytics to investigate connections between how students are paying for their education, how that influences their progression at the institution, and how this affects their living once they leave the university. By increasing the four-year graduation rate, Alabama can reduce the debt students incur, so they can be more effective income earners early on.

Alabama’s analytics journey is transforming how leadership uses information to improve programs, increase enrollment and retention, and put more students on paths to success. Learn more about how analytics and data visualization are transforming higher education in the white paper, Reporting: What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You.

About the Author:

Georgia Mariani is product marketing manager for Education for SAS, an analytics and business intelligence provider with nearly four decades of experience working with educational institutions. A 19-year SAS veteran, Mariani works with customers to share best practices, successes and recommendations that enable education institutions to get the most productive insights from their data.


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