Colleges and universities continue to struggle with shrinking enrollment and retention as students choose education alternatives or jump ship to competing institutions. Staff shortages are also impacting campus services — particularly financial officers’ ability to help students navigate payments and comply with industry regulations, reports NASFAA

In response, a growing number of higher ed institutions are emulating the business sector in using data to enhance staff and student experiences, much like retailers use transaction and behavioral data to charm consumers and drive spending.

Identifying blind spots and opportunities in data

This spring, 150 higher ed leaders shared how they’re using data in a survey by TouchNet and Higher Ed Dive’s studioID. In open-ended answers, many said they’re capturing more data now than a year ago, especially data relating to student experiences, business efficiencies and financial transactions.

When asked about their motivation for data collection, most respondents said they want to improve student experiences (56%) and staff/faculty experiences (46%). To that end, leaders said access to real-time insights into trending campus behaviors (49%), enrollment and retention (48%) and preferences/behaviors/trends segmented by various audiences (45%) would “drastically improve” their ability to meet performance goals. 

Portland Community College: One-stop shop mentality

How might data insights and access transform campus experiences? Fredderick Simmons, manager of student account services at Portland Community College (PCC), shared a few use cases in a recent episode of TouchNet’s FOCUS podcast

Aiming for “one-stop shop” support, PCC is implementing answer centers, chat and Zoom support so that students can get answers from multiple departments simultaneously. This means they won’t have to repeat their inquiries and re-explain their situations to various offices, including questions and concerns around everything from payment plans and academic scheduling to parking permits, for example. PCC is able to provide answers by connecting student/staff ID data across multiple systems.

PCC also tracks and timestamps student movements to identify what services they use and when. With visibility into those trends, Simmons’ teams can plan for staffing needs across four campuses to match student demand. “We know when we need all hands on deck in person, and when staff can work from home,” he explained. In the last semester, all staff had to be on campus at the same time for four days, to the delight of workers seeking a flexible, hybrid schedule. “It’s important to stay in tune with our students, but also to stay in tune with our staff,” Simmons explained. 

Data insights also enable PCC to anticipate and counter financial obstacles to enrollment or retention. “We are now allowing students to roll over a thousand dollars balance, as long as they’re enrolled in a financial plan,” he shared. PCC also allows students to tailor payment plans, from postponing installments to moving due dates. “We want finances to be the last thing a student worries about, so they can focus on academics,” Simmons added.

Roadblocks and pathways to value

The experiences Simmons describes hinge on easy access to complete and connected data. That’s something many institutions struggle to get. Eight in 10 TouchNet survey respondents said it would be “very” or “extremely” helpful to have a unified source of data, but only two in 10 have that capability today. Similarly, 80% of respondents ranked the ability to log into a central dashboard (versus separate systems) as “very” or “extremely” helpful.

It’s why many institutions like PCC are turning to ID management integrations as a budget-friendly, low-risk path to improved digital access and analytics. “We’re seeing higher ed leaders say: ‘Wow, the campus credential can do other things we didn’t expect it to do,’” says Dawn Thomas, chief executive officer of the National Association of Campus Card Users (NACCU). “The student ID touches every area of campus, whether it’s dining, attending an event, swiping to access a building or make a payment. All of that data can reveal trends. You have the opportunity to really impact experiences and the bottom line.”

Steps to profitable data, better campus experiences

To translate data into revenue and business opportunities, higher ed leaders must realize data is a leadership problem — not a technology one, says Dave Kieffer, principal analyst at The Tambellini Group. “The actual technology components are straightforward if you nurture a data culture and engage the right people,” he says. 

For starters, stakeholders should collaborate on data decisions, instead of relying on one functional leader or team, like the CIO. Just as important, data discussions should focus on specific, real problems that the institution needs to solve in order to avoid getting stuck in theoretical exercises. 

Looking ahead to the next couple of years, Kieffer expects higher ed leaders will grow more mindful of their shared responsibility for data. They’ll also realize they don’t have to reinvent the wheel to create their own “Frankenstein” technology sets, which often isn’t financially feasible. Instead, higher ed can lean on the experience and resources of technology partners who have already mastered the areas they want to improve.

“Decisions like whether you can afford a program or whether to merge with another organization … These are urgent, existential questions,” Kieffer notes. “Not having holistic, quality data impedes their ability to make those decisions.”

What opportunities are hiding in your data? Learn more about how your peers are approaching data on their campuses. Download the full survey report here.