If companies can use big data to serve customers and improve the bottom line, college officials said it could just as well serve students.

Online retailers use it to make recommendations to customers. Banks use it to determine who is a good risk for a loan and what their interest rate should be.

Now, Columbia Basin College in Washington state wants to use the sea of information available about current and prospective students, from the courses they select to the pages they “like” on Facebook, to learn more about them.

College officials said the task won’t be easy, as it means searching out and harnessing endless amounts of information.

But that information, being called “big data,” could hold the key to improving student achievement and retention. CBC President Rich Cummins said the information could even be used to help individualize help for students with homework questions.

Cummins told the college’s board of trustees recently that CBC students generate immeasurable amounts of data every day.

Those data include records tracked by the college on classes and grades; older archived information, such as logs showing which students sought tutoring help; and massive amounts of information generated by students on social networks, specifically Facebook, where students often list their preferences on issues ranging from what they like to do in their spare time to what issues they follow.

Cummins said using these statistics, facts, and preferences about students could go a long way toward understanding what teaching methods they respond to, what subjects they’re interested in, and what services they need.

(Next page: Challenges to moving forward, and possible next steps)

Add your opinion to the discussion.