• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


(Not) Using Data for Decisions

Campus leaders report that their institutions do not make effective use of data to aid and inform planning and decision-making.

January 25, 2012

Today’s edition of Inside Higher Ed presents the results of a national survey of provosts and chief academic officers (CAOs). I’m pleased to report that The Campus Computing Project worked with the editors of Inside Higher Ed on this survey. Some 1100 (ok -1081!) CAOs across all sectors of American higher education participated in this December 2011 survey.

The CAO survey follows previous Inside Higher Ed surveys of presidents, chief financial officers, and chief admissions officers.  Some of these surveys used common questions, allowing us to compare the data on key issues as seen from various seats at the cabinet table.

One of the more interesting findings across the surveys of presidents, provosts, and CFOs is how these institutional leaders assess their campuses on using data to aid and inform planning and decision-making. Alas, the news is not good.  As shown below, less than two-fifths of the presidents, provosts, and CFOs surveyed by Inside Higher Ed this past year report that their institution does a “very effective” job of “using data to aid and inform campus decision-making.”

These numbers will fuel the continuing debate about why campuses – or more accurately college and university officials – do not leverage the power of data to aid and inform planning and decision-making.  Moreover, the conversation about data is also a conversation about accountability – a conversation that has been elevated on college campuses and also state and federal offices in the years following the publication of the Spellings Commission report in 2006.

Alas, we can no longer claim that the failure to use data effectively is due to the absence of data.  Administrative information systems now generate more data about students, academic programs, and campus resources and services – and do it faster and better – than just five years ago.

Interestingly, while less than a third (30.9 percent) of the provosts surveyed by Inside Higher Ed in December report that their institutions are “very effective” at using data to inform decision-making, almost three-fourths (72.0 percent) agree that their institutions “make effective use of the data they receive” from standardized instruments and tests (e.g., the Collegiate Learning Assessment/CLA or the National Survey of Student Engagement/NSSE) to measure gains in critical thinking, student engagement, and other student outcomes.

These numbers suggest that some kinds of data are more valued than others, or lend themselves to more direct applications.  No doubt the mandates for assessment and the continuing focus on educational outcomes from accrediting and government agencies serve as a catalyst for provosts, deans, and department chairs to attend to the data these instruments generate.

Yet we also know that over the past decade admissions and alumni/development offices have been transformed by the analytical tools that inform efforts to recruit students and raise money.  Perhaps what differentiates admissions and development offices from other units on many campuses is that these offices benefit from clear missions and measures of success, and operate as more structured organizations.

No matter how we (or I) try to explain why campuses don’t make effective use of data for decision-making, there is no question that colleges and universities – and campus leaders – will have to do better.  We see too many instances that document the effective use of data in the consumer and corporate economy.  There are too many times when we in academe are asked why we are not using and leveraging data in ways that parallel the activities in other sectors.

During her inaugural tour following her appointment as Secretary of Education by President George W. Bush, Margaret Spellings told a number of audiences that “back in Texas we like to say, in God we trust, all others bring data.”  It was a charming and disarming way to help explain the No Child Left Behind legislation.  It really did not matter that a few keystrokes on Google sourced the “bring data” quote to W. Edwards Deming, often cited as the godfather of statistical quality control.

The data gauntlet has been thrown.  It is time for us to pick it up, rise the challenge, and leverage the opportunities that data provide to aid and inform our efforts in academe.


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