by Lauren Zeimer Gold
Until a few years ago, if you told me that I would be considered a “data expert,” I would have chuckled and quickly changed the subject. Math is not easy for me, but despite that, I have learned to respect it. Following my undergraduate coursework and thesis on boarding schools, I jumped right back to a boarding school after graduating. Following my second boarding school job, I enrolled in Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where I was exposed to data-based decision making in several of my classes. It was through classes like these that I gained an appreciation for the value of data in making decisions. Following HGSE, I transitioned to working in admission at Harvard Law School. My mentor there was Jessica Soban, who came from a management consulting background and taught her whole team the value of looking at data, both when making admission decisions and also when evaluating programs and projects. I learned to develop surveys for feedback, and we used a tool to give us real-time enrollment projections as we went through the admission process. Most importantly, Jessica instilled in the team the importance of making decisions based on professional experience, using data to back them up. An admission professional who becomes comfortable with the use of data brings an invaluable skill to the table.
Diving Into Data
It was not easy to just flip a switch and incorporate data analysis into my daily work—I needed to build up the technical skills required to put it into action. The good news is that the best way to learn is just to dive in. After taking some beginner online Excel courses to learn the basic functions, I jumped in with a data set and started practicing. Some of my early mistakes helped me learn that it is always important to take a step back from the data and put on your “admission professional” hat. Data are vital tools that can provide a good baseline or comparison point and inform decision making, but it is also important to listen to the “gut” feelings of the admission staff and committee members, especially those who know the school well and know what makes a successful student. Relatedly, I think one of the most misunderstood ideas about using data in admission work is the notion that using data equates to relying on test scores. In fact, I’m someone who is wary of test scores when not put into context. That context is provided by your additional data (where is student X coming from, how many kids in that school go on to college, what is the average education level in that town, etc.). All admission offices collect a huge amount of data: age, gender, race, geographic location, and academic and extracurricular interests. Schools can then use the data to make informed enrollment management decisions that work toward institutional priorities, whether they are around athletics, student demographics, or alumni engagement. You can use data to make your argument, whatever it may be.
Clear Data, Better Decisions
Furthermore, enrollment managers can look into bigger data around demographic shifts and population changes to help plan for future enrollment. At The Lawrenceville School, where I now work, we began to use data more closely under the leadership of Tom Sheppard, dean of enrollment management. Having clearly defined priorities with the head of school and board of trustees is an important first step.
When working with teams and boards, it is vital to make the data easy to digest. Just as good writing is a form of good communication, good data visualization through clear charts and tables can help to guide a group to really understand what the data is indicating. Enrollment.org and Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL) by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) have some fabulous resources for this type of research and tips on presenting it to your head and board.
Our new dean of admission, Will Richardson, also supports our use of data to inform and understand the admission funnel and provide structure and framework for admission decisions. He also understands that at the core of what we do are interpersonal relationships, something that can’t be quantified. The use of data is a team effort throughout our whole office of 20 people. Last year I developed a “selection tool” that helped to give us real-time updates related to our institutional priorities as we neared decision day on March 10. In order for this data to be accurate, we relied on the whole team to keep each individual record updated as we moved through the selection process. We have also recently begun to survey families at different stages of the admission process to learn what we do well and where we can improve. While the feedback is never perfect, it gives us a basic guideline from which to make tweaks to our cycle, such as revisit day or the campus visit experience.
Finally, I know that data and charts and numbers can appear to run contrary to the work that we all love—working with the kids. Data analysis should never replace, but must augment, the conversations that we all have every day in our offices and around the school. Data can help admission professionals and educators make better, more informed decisions. Not everyone needs to crunch numbers, but I believe that developing comfort and healthy curiosity around standards and baselines is vital for future independent school leaders. That comfort and curiosity can help us all be even more effective in the most important work we do: changing lives.
Lauren Zeimer Gold is director of admission operations at The Lawrenceville School (NJ).