The evolving use of data in higher education


I my past blog posts I have written mostly about K-12 education. This is mainly because I think K-12 is over-ripe for reform in so many ways. School districts could learn a great deal from other industries and higher education in terms of data usage, reporting and analysis of students, programs and their associated effectiveness. For instance, higher education has been analyzing data and using it to drive decisions for a much longer time than K-12. In my 13 years at SAS, I have seen higher education evolve quite a bit in their data usage. Let me describe that evolution.

At first, institutions really needed to access the multitude of data residing on their many disparate systems. Once the data was accessed, consolidated and cleaned, they had one version of the truth to work from. Next, we saw a lot of ad-hoc reports that were requested from users throughout the institution's community, then re-requested in a different format or with different parameters. This was very time consuming work. A lot of decisions were reactionary during this phase.

Once constituents got used to having data, they wanted reports more consistently. This was the phase of the multitude of static reports. Again over time, constituents wanted reports more often, they wanted to see trends over time, they wanted to slice and dice the data. As data usage and reporting grew, more departments wanted their own information in an easy to use dynamic format. Thus the information delivery portal was born. Many institutions still have portals that they use now. They use this information to make proactive decisions about students, enrollment, programs, degrees and more. Because the information is at the fingertips of their constitutients, Institutional Researchers now have more time to focus on new projects and new analysis to answer new questions.

Constituents have continued to become very data savvy and are asking a lot more sophisticated question. They not only want to know what happened and when, they want to know what might happen. Thus, we see advanced analytics come into play. Institutions use analytics for recruitment, retention, resource and facilities planning, advancement, and much more.

Recently I attended the Association of Institutional Researchers (AIR) conference. While there I saw several presentations by the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Western Kentucky University (WKU) that talk about how they have evolved in their data usage and are now branching into having a reporting portal and going into analytics. Since we were able to video these presentations, you can view them on our AIR 2011 YouTube playlist . You can also read a UCF conclusions paper and a WKU conclusions paper - both about institutional reporting - based on these presentations as well. It is great to see such amazing progress over the years. After all, the end result of all these efforts is that it helps the students. My hope is that other institutions, including K-12 schools, can learn from the work that these presenters have accomplished.


About Author

Georgia Mariani

Principal Product Marketing Manager

Georgia Mariani is the Principal Product Marketing Manager for the Education Industry.


  1. Georgia - my professional association is known as AIR, not AIRS. The 'R' stands for Research, not Researchers.
    I have two observations - first, UCF and WKU are fully to be congratulated and celebrated in a writeup of this type. They have indeed innovated their data systems and are doing cutting-edge institutional research work. The bad news is that they are so far ahead in these areas relative to the rest of the institutional universe that we can barely see them on the horizon, in my opinion. 'Most', rather than the 'many' you surmise being advanced, are firmly stuck in modes between your first description of disparate systems and your second description of settling into reporting from a unitary RDBMS. I would characterize as 'few' those who have made it to the fully qualified 'data portal' phase, and fewer still who have self-actualized into advanced analytics.
    I blew coffee through my nose reading your hope that "Because the information is at the fingertips of their constituents, Institutional Researchers now have more time to focus on new projects and new analysis to answer new questions." Even the best-of-the-best IR shops struggle daily to maintain data integrity and force their data systems and business rules and rulemakers to stay on track. Getting meaningful data out and analyzed in sophisticated ways remains a firmly held principle, but a hard-fought battle. I appreciate and encourage everything that the Institute can do to help us in our quest, but I thought that you should know that many of us are at points further back in the spectrum than you might have originally thought, and that more attention needs to be paid to assisting us to work through these layers.

    • Alison Bolen

      This is Alison, the blog editor, with just a quick reply to let you know I've fixed the error in AIR. That was a mistake I made when adding in the acronym. Sorry for the mistake.

  2. Georgia Mariani
    Georgia Mariani on

    Thanks so much for reading and responding. I write these blogs and often wonder who is reading them. I was also out on vacation and just getting through my e-mails so sorry for the delay in responding.
    In my blog above I am writing about my experiences over time with SAS customers and what they have accomplished. We have many customers beyond the two I mentioned above that are doing similar things with SAS.
    I totally agree that many more universities could benefit from what our customers are accomplishing. In part, that is why we filmed WKU and UCF's presentations and created the papers, to make other universities aware of what is possible and to call on SAS to help them in their evolution.

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