Data and Its Use: Bringing in the Experts

Data and Its Use: Bringing in the Experts

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”  - Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape

Since joining the profession of enrolment management, the importance of collecting, analysing, and using data has been a theme woven through pretty much every magazine, conference, and blog I have read or attended. And I agree that it is important...in fact, essential. Like Mr. Barksdale asserts, without data all we have are opinions, and while I like to think that I have excellent instincts, that is not going to help me guide any school through the complexities of changing demographics and economic downturns.

But as important as I know data are, there isn’t a lot of support out there for those who are new to enrolment management when it comes down to the actual data and how to read them. I recently re-read the NAIS Enrollment Management Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Independent Schools, and it really is an excellent guide. It is one of the only sources I have accessed that actually has a list of the data I should be collecting: ten years' worth of statistics on inquiries, ethnicity, financial aid, etc. However, in the chapter entitled “Integrating Technology into Enrollment Management” it states, “...data management requires a rigorous process and -- ideally -- its own staffing and budget line.” As important as the data are, how many of us can afford a full time statistician -- and would we prioritise that position over someone who is more focused on recruitment?

We covered this topic during one of the modules of the Certificate in Enrollment Management Program, and I was asked to reflect on the data that I had, what was missing, and how I could read the data to help provide essential information to my head of school and the board of directors. I came to several conclusions. One is that I don’t have ten years' worth of data or a database that can provide accurate historical data. The best I can do is use what I have collected over the past three years that I have been in this role. That, however, is not enough for any sort of predictive analysis, and when our board asked me to provide a SWOT analysis for a business expansion proposal, I knew that I would need more than my meager data analysis skills to guide them effectively. That’s when I concluded that while we might not have the budget for a full-time statistician, we could afford to hire a consultant with the experience necessary to use big data to fill in the gaps that I had identified.   

Last year, at the Enrollment Management Association’s annual conference, I attended a workshop on using census data and psychographic information to determine the overall health of a given market and how it applies to enrollment management, presented by Dana Nelson-Isaacs of DNI Consulting. I was immediately hooked! I wanted those data for my market and to really get a feel for possible pitfalls or (hopefully!) validation that we were on the right track. After ascertaining that Dana could, indeed, access the kind of information she needed in Canada, and making sure that we were going to be using the latest census data released in February of this year, I successfully pitched the project to my head and CFO.

Just a few weeks ago, Dana came back to me with the results of her research. It took an hour to get through all of the information and it has taken me many more to familiarise myself with the data, but I can already tell that they will inform not only future decisions related to board initiatives, but also the day-to-day work we do in admission and its connection to our five-year strategic enrolment plan.

So the bottom line is this: Few of us are experts in every area of enrolment management, and that is why we construct teams of individuals who bring different areas of strength. Should there still exist a gap, consider bringing in an expert who can provide the support you require. It’s an important investment and one that could have a lasting impact.