The modern, public university is arguably facing more strain than ever before—both from outside and inside its walls. Marked by new competitors and declining funding, the state of today’s higher-ed marketplace has driven more public universities to turn to technology as a holy grail for readying them to compete.
Universities are complex systems, comprised of thousands of departments, specialty schools, and student groups. They’re facing competition from for-profit institutions and tech startups, and the state funding for public universities is declining year over year.
A cross-sectional view of several macro-level trends in higher ed paints a clear picture on why this complexity is significant, and how technology will be a defining factor in addressing it.
More years, larger tuition bills, fewer results
For starters, students, on average, are taking longer to graduate. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the six-year graduation rate has significantly increased in recent years, adding to the overall cost of education. In addition, the Center reports that in four-year institutions with open admissions policies, 32 percent of students take six years or more to complete a bachelor’s degree. At four-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the six-year graduation rate was 88 percent.
Tuition and student-loan debt rising are major contributors to this trend. Many students are finding they have to earn income while in school to offset these costs, limiting the time they can spend on coursework, all while their debt grows. Unfortunately, many end up dropping out without a degree to show for their efforts before universities can get involved to provide much-needed student-relief services.
Encouragingly, many institutions are finding data analytics to be an effective tool for helping identify and respond quickly to factors that impact students’ ability to finish their degree and to finish it on time.
Public universities: mines of data-based value
Universities naturally generate a substantial amount of data from many different sources (which often operate autonomously). For example, beacon-equipped campus cafeterias and food courts provide administrators with an extensive data network that can be leveraged to manage the rush of students grabbing food between classes. Key fob scanners are another data source used by administrators to help identify at-risk student groups who may not be leveraging campus resources to their advantage.
If properly harvested, analytics can help universities leverage this wealth of information to streamline their operations and identify factors that contribute to improving student retention and graduation rates. Yet data integration presents a major technological challenge for universities today as they continue integrating cloud technologies to improve operations, boost student retention, and improve graduation rates.
Once integration is navigated, many universities are finding the value is irreplaceable. The University of California, San Diego is using an analytics platform, Student Activity Hub, to assess student behaviors—ranging from football-game attendance to tutoring-centers usage—and help administrators match university services with the needs of various student groups to improve graduation rates.
For instance, students belonging to the subgroup of those who are the first in their family to attend college could be found to have a correlative relationship between the time they purchase their textbooks and their classroom success. As a result, administrators could then send emails to this subgroup informing them of local textbook deals and reminding them to purchase before a certain date. The sheer value of being able to take a large student population, categorize it into various subgroups, and run this type of analytics on categories to discover insights can mean the difference between students dropping out and graduating on time.
For those who have yet to navigate the initial hurdle of data integration, where should they start?
Overcoming data integration starts with culture
Despite having the societal role of preparing future generations to drive innovation, many universities still operate on aged IT infrastructures that served as the norm last century. First and foremost, next-gen technology is an incredible resource to modernize your operations and leverage the value of your many data sources to support student success. With rising competitive pressures, digital transformation can mean the difference between losing and improving institutional reputation.
However, this type of transformation requires university leadership to embrace agility and, despite not being for-profit entities, really think like startups. Campus CIOs, chancellors, deans, and staff must adopt an iterative approach to innovation, open to experimenting with emerging technologies that take advantage of existing assets with the ultimate goal of driving student success. In addition, these executives must mandate the breaking down of data silos and insist all data be a part of the new paradigm.
For those who are just starting on this journey and others who are further along, this is where establishing a trusted ecosystem with strategic partners and technology advocates can help. Valued partners and experts in your institution’s local area are an excellent resource for universities looking to drive this startup culture of innovation, fail fast, and learn quickly. With effective usage of data analytics, a culture that embraces disruption, and a community of trusted partners at their disposal, public universities will be well-suited to navigate the oft-turbulent nature of higher education.
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