How can you know what’s best for more than 20,000 students?


When your job involves making decisions that affect thousands of college students, making the right decisions can have a large impact on the future. Giving college administrators easy access to reliable analytics can help improve enrollment and graduation rates – and find answers to complex questions that cut across many facets of the university.

“Too often, good-hearted people make decisions based on what they think will be good for students, but in the end, these decisions aren’t good for them,” explains Tuesdi Helbig, Director of Institutional Research at Western Kentucky University (WKU).

Helbig and her colleagues at WKU maintain an enterprise reporting system and use SAS Visual Analytics to empower their constituents – regardless of whether they are on or off campus – to access data and insights about students, faculty, staff, revenues and more. I recently had the opportunity to interview Helbig and Gina Huff, a Senior Applications Programmer Analyst at WKU, to learn more. 

Can you share why is it important to have an enterprise reporting system?

Tuesdi Helbig
Tuesdi Helbig

Helbig: Different audiences need different types of reports and analytics across the institution. For example, our executive team is interested in revenue, enrollments and strategic planning data for the university as a whole. They need high-level, high-impact reports that tell a story. The deans and department heads are interested in the students in their college and department and what’s going on with them. So they need a mix of high-level, high-impact and detailed reports on students. And advisors are interested in who is at risk. They need detailed contact information and risk models of student data so they can intervene to help when necessary.

Enterprise reporting systems give everyone a single source of truth. They integrate data from systems across the enterprise and validate and reconcile data from different sources. They also minimize the "he said-she said" conversations. It provides all these different users with 24/7 access to the reports they need to make data-informed decisions.

Why is it important to use analytics to make better decisions?

Helbig:  Too often, good-hearted people make decisions based on what they think will be good for students, but in the end, these decisions aren’t good for them. Analytics running on an enterprise reporting system help people understand what’s really going on today – and in the future – so they can make more informed decisions.

Using visual analytics reveals patterns that you wouldn’t see if you were using reporting tools only. It makes it easier to interact with tons of data and get meaningful results faster. You don’t even have to know all of the questions to ask … simply seeing the data visually generates questions you didn’t know to ask. And at any time, users can delve deeper into the visualizations – into the data behind them – to know more.

How has data visualization and analytics aided your users and institution?

Gina Huff
Gina Huff

Huff:  The response has been very, very positive. The types of requests that we receive have changed, and also the users that are asking for the information are starting to evolve as well. We see a lot more participation from our department heads, people who are on the front lines that are wanting to make changes within the university and know now that they can access the data to make informed decisions.

Helbig: People used to ask simple questions like ‘How many part-time students are enrolled?’ But now they can get the simple questions answered, so they are asking us more sophisticated research questions like, ‘Are we driving majors off by requiring certain courses early in their major?’ or ‘Are there certain courses in our major, after which students either change their major or leave the university?’

What about Mobile access? How important is that to your users?

Helbig: Mobile access to data reporting and visualization capabilities is critical. Today’s decision makers have very little time and are always on the go. They have to be able to pull up reports on their mobile devices. More often than not, administrators are in meetings or out of town when they need data to answer questions or make decisions. So we need to make sure they can instantly access what they need, anytime and anywhere.

What are some best practices for using data and analytics for informed decision-making?

Huff:  Okay, the very first thing is to “know thy data.” You have to know and understand the data youare using to ensure you are making informed decisions. We want to make sure that we build trust. We want to make sure that constituents know the data that we are going to provide is going to be good data, it’s going to be something that we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into, and it’s going to be something that’s going to hopefully ensure the success of our student body.        

Helbig: I agree. The success of any enterprise reporting system is contingent upon having clean data. “If you do not have good, clean data, the credibility of the system will be in doubt, and it will not be used. We have spent inordinate amounts of time cleaning our data so that sound decisions can be made using them.”

Why was SAS the choice for these projects?

Huff:  We use SAS Visual Analytics to provide decision support and strategic planning support. So SAS is really the go-to solution for all of those things in institutional research. I guess the first thing that I think of is the flexibility, and also the fact that SAS is so comprehensive. You can do everything within it. You can pull your data in, you can import it, you can massage the data, you can do data cleansing. Then you can do all of your research, from the very basic to the very complex. For reporting, you are able to create publication-ready and presentation-ready reports. So, it’s a one-stop shop.

Because of SAS, we are able to provide better services to our students, and ultimately that’s what we’re here for-- to try and ensure the success of each and every student.

Helbig: Without SAS Visual Analytics, you are really making decisions blindly. SAS Visual Analytics helps you see what’s in your data and what’s happening within your institution. There can be lots and lots of data out there, and sometimes you don’t even know what revelations you may have. Data visualizations help people see things they might have missed. They can explore trends further by digging into the data to understand why things happened.


To learn more, read this whitepaper, Best Practices for Modernizing Enterprise Decision Making , featuring Tuesdi Helbig. Also, check out WKU’s new success story. Finally, the SAS higher education website has more information on how we partner with universities to help with their data, analytics and reporting needs.


About Author

Georgia Mariani

Principal Product Marketing Manager

Georgia Mariani has spent nearly a quarter-century exploring and sharing how analytics can improve outcomes. As a Principal Industry Marketing Manager at analytics leader SAS, supporting the education industry, she passionately showcases customers using analytics to tackle important education issues and help students succeed. Georgia received her M.S. in Mathematics with a concentration in Statistics from the University of New Orleans.

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