Colleges are using data analytics to increase student success.

10 ways colleges use analytics to increase student success

From recruitment to alumni relations, using analytics can be truly transformative

The success of higher education institutions depends on the ability to excel across the student life cycle. Regardless of the type, size, or focus of a college or university, they all strive to attract and enroll high-quality students, retain and graduate students, and maintain strong relationships with alumni.

One of the keys to realizing these outcomes is using analytics to go beyond reporting on what has happened in the past, to providing a best assessment on what will happen in the future. By applying analytics to student life cycle data, universities can generate deeper insight into students before they arrive, while they are on campus, and after they leave.

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Higher-ed institutions that are already using advanced analytics in these areas have successfully transformed their processes, decision making, operations, and funding. Let’s look at how some of these innovative organizations are enhancing the student journey with analytics.

Recruitment and marketing

Universities face fierce competition for students. With increasingly restrictive budgets, recruitment officers need to focus their limited resources on the students most likely to enroll. Having a better understanding of the factors that lead to successful recruitment of a talented student requires analyzing the data of past students.

The University of Oklahoma did just that. It took a data-informed approach and created predictive models to assess the probability that an admitted student would enroll, then determined which actions recruitment officers should take. By narrowing the focus to a smaller list of students, recruitment officers could now pursue better prepared students–and use fewer resources to do it. As a result, the university had its largest and most academically prepared student body ever, including more National Merit students than any other public or private university.

As Oklahoma learned, analytics can help universities answer questions like this and more. Such as, which scholarships and amounts would not only attract select students, but also get them to apply and ultimately enroll? Are students with higher SAT scores more likely to be engaged throughout campus, perform better academically, and graduate? Are first-generation students more likely or less likely to get involved in campus? By answering questions like these, universities can tailor their recruitment and marketing efforts to enroll more successful cohorts of students.

Meeting student needs

Once students are on campus, universities strive to meet their demands, keep them engaged, and help them progress toward graduation and careers. This requires integrating data from across the university to gain a deeper understanding of course offerings, faculty, facilities, research programs, and other resources.

Analytics can improve university operations in myriad ways:

  • Optimize academic program offerings to better appeal to the target student population.
  • Schedule enough sections of classes, with enough faculty to teach them, to meet demand and help students to graduate on time.
  • Take into account enrollment forecasts, budgets, computing resources, parking, and more.
  • Identify which students are on track, which are near completion, and which are eligible to be auto-graduated.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) is using analytics and data visualization to better understand the school’s progress toward metrics in student success, faculty excellence, research, and philanthropy. UCF uses a data-visualization dashboard to map trends and trajectories toward those goals. College deans can consume information about their students, faculty, and performance that they didn’t have access to before, and use the information to make more strategic decisions to meet student needs.

Hillsborough (FL) Community College’s “near graduation” program uses analytics to identify previously enrolled students who need to complete only 25 percent or less of their requirements to graduate. The college also identifies and informs students who may be closer to another degree than their declared program of study. HCC reaches out to these students to encourage them to re-enroll and complete their credentials. The college can now identify which students are on track, which are near completion, and which are eligible to be auto-graduated–which resulted in HCC graduating or awarding certificates to more than 5,100 students, 13 percent of all graduations during the 2016-17 academic year.

Student retention

There are many potential pitfalls between enrollment and graduation. To guide students through the ups and downs of a college career, it is critical that retention personnel have access to the right information and insight at the right time to proactively identify at-risk students. That information can include how many students in each major were retained each year and where the greatest attrition was so schools can make program changes to reduce it. Analytics can identify students having problems and guide strategies and interventions, and also measure the outcomes of these programs to ensure effectiveness.

University of Alabama used analytics to find the correlation between a student asking for an official transcript and then leaving the university. Prior to using analytics, that’s something Alabama hadn’t thought of as an indicator. Now the school realizes that this request is a red flag, and it’s actually the best indicator of students leaving the university in their first year. Alabama administrators can use that information to identify students early on and reach out to provide resources to help them.

Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) used analytics to investigate attrition among new students. Administrators confirmed that placing students into developmental courses based on entrance exam scores often caused them to drop out. Disheartened students paying full tuition but not gaining college credit would simply quit. Guided by this knowledge, DMACC offers a college readiness class and counseling to prepare future students for full admission the next semester. DMACC also uses inexpensive online refresher classes for students with low English or math placement test scores, instead of requiring semester-long, no-credit developmental classes.


Ideally, a student’s relationship with the university does not end at graduation. As budgets tighten, endowments shrink, and needs increase, fundraising becomes a top priority. But to conduct complex and successful fundraising and endowment campaigns, institutions must be able to access and consolidate accurate alumni, donor and prospect data, as well as statistically analyze that data to determine who is most likely to donate.

Proud alumni are critical to a school’s financial health, and often nothing stokes that pride quite like a school’s sports teams. The University of North Carolina Athletics Department has built an Analytics Center of Excellence that combines data from UNC’s alumni club and the school’s marketing, creative services, and ticket sales groups to tailor campaigns to engage with fans most likely to buy season tickets, donate to the university, or take other actions. This approach led to record ticket sales in 2017 of $24 million. UNC sold nearly 5,000 new football season tickets. The Athletics Department’s efforts also laid the foundation for additional Rams Club fundraising activities, as well as for other campus departments like University Development and Performing Arts to likewise reach and engage audience members and donors.

Analytics helps higher ed institutions easily manage, store, share, and analyze alumni and donor information and, like UNC, save time and money by cost-effectively targeting those most likely to donate. Analytics can reveal new, qualified prospects who might have been previously untouched, and generate a list of highly qualified prospects–each scored and ranked by propensity to give.

Analytics can improve every step of the student life cycle, from before a high schooler picks a college through a graduate’s lifetime in the workforce. Higher education institutions want to understand how they can make students more successful, why certain students are struggling, and how to encourage graduation and future donations. This will require giving them access to more data, more detailed reporting, and more powerful analytics and visualization software. There are many colleges and universities doing this well to support different stages of a student’s journey. Using analytics throughout could be truly transformative.

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