Diving Into Data

Diving Into Data

As the independent school landscape becomes more complex, the need for enrollment managers to produce (and provide meaning for) a variety of institutional data increases. In addition to the more obvious admission data that can inform annual decisions about recruitment tactics and allocating marketing resources, leaders must also produce reliable and relevant data from which to make critical decisions about the school’s long-term enrollment management strategy. The admission function of the school provides an important source of data, but when combined with data generated from other school offices, such as business and financial aid, advancement, alumni relations, academics, and athletics, these data become powerful engines for retention and decision-making. The enrollment manager’s job is to turn these data into information and put it into contexts that provide valuable insights to all those asking and answering strategic questions.

Higher education is already using sophisticated data analytics across the entire student journey—from prospect to alumnus. Modern technology and the ability to “follow” students digitally are allowing colleges and universities to gather enormous amounts of “big data” that challenge those tasked with their analysis to boil down what they gather into actionable and salient information.

It is likely that independent schools will follow a similar path, each in its own time and method. But there are basic questions to explore first: Why do we need data? What kind of data do we need? What do we do with them? To investigate these questions, we interviewed a variety of industry professionals on effective use of institutional data. From an astonishing number of them, we heard the same phrase: it requires that you “dive in.”

Meaningful Data Collection

Every school collects a plethora of data—in admission office spreadsheets, legacy systems, and individual departmental databases, and through external benchmarking sources like the National Association of Independent Schools’ Data and Analysis for School Leadership (DASL). From an enrollment perspective, analyzing both internal and external (competition, local economy, area demographics, etc.) factors can shift the focus from simply collecting data to creating meaning that will inform decisions.

Barbara Eghan, director of enrollment management and financial aid at Georgetown Day School (DC), illustrates the concept of meaningful internal data collection with an example: “Last spring, we identified in our committee process a number of students whom our athletic directors and coaches said would be most helpful to our sports program, so we admitted a fairly large percentage of those student athletes, but yielded only a quarter of them, which is significantly lower than our overall yield statistic. That gave us an indication that there is some real work that we need to do in beefing up our program, and we have data now to back that up.” While just one example, it is information like this that is, or should be, routinely collected by the admission office to influence key institutional decisions.

The data must also be put into perspective through careful and regular analysis. As EMA Senior Director of Outreach and Business Development Aimee Gruber recalls,”In a session at a TABS annual conference, an admission director was describing her office’s ‘high alert,’ because they had 30 fewer inquiries for 9th grade boarding boys in the month of October compared with the year before. The school was able to attribute the previous year’s gain to a feeder school they had visited, which led to the generation of those inquiries. This is an example of great data mining, but also a reminder that schools need to track and assess the funnel in real time.”

Maile Uohara, director of admissions at the International School of the Peninsula (CA), utilized an external database to provide her board with the bigger-picture explanation for change in demographics and enrollment: “One of the most helpful things that I did this year was go into the Department of Education (DOE) database and look over their enrollment numbers and present those data to the head of school and the board. Within the DOE database, you can drill down into the data by county, by city, and even down to specific schools. Kindergarten enrollment was what I was interested in, because my biggest entry point is kindergarten. I looked at kindergarten enrollment for the last eight years, and found that in our local neighborhood, there has been an approximate 20% decline in kindergarten enrollment in the last four years. Having these data helped inform our strategic decisions for enrollment throughout the school.”

Mission Guides Your Metrics

While admission offices typically perform a regular check of numbers to ensure they are on target for the current season, more advanced data analytics require the use of longer-term and, optimally, institution-wide data that can be mined to unearth both micro and macro trends. The key to determining the types of data that are most important and relevant begins by asking questions that align with the school’s mission.

When developing a strategic enrollment management plan, it is important to first identify the right questions. Initial questions should include: “What kinds of admission and enrollment decisions must we make? What kinds of information are needed to make those decisions wisely? What data must we collect in order to create that information? How can we best obtain those data? Who should be in charge of that information and what form should it take?”

Scott Allenby, director of communications and marketing at Proctor Academy (NH), puts a slightly different spin on those questions: “I think the first questions a school should ask itself are ‘What are we doing to fulfill our educational mission?’ and ‘Are we doing it as well as we can?’” he says. “Schools should then ask ‘What are the stories we’re telling? What’s the narrative around our school? Is it centered on what we believe we do really well?’”

Christopher White, head of school at Kempenfelt Bay School (ON) states, “The answer is likely different for every admission office and will be based on the school’s mission, desired attributes for the incoming class, sophistication of the admission process, and the database being used.” He adds, “Of great importance—and often overlooked—is the degree to which other areas of the school’s administration use the available data. In the end, all aspects of a school need to be pulling in the same direction. The goal is the fulfillment of the mission, and everyone in the school is in service to that mission.”

The mission of the school must be the starting point to determining which data are most important to the decision-making process. As Allenby explains, “If a school is wondering how to collect data and revamp their marketing efforts, they must start by knowing themselves and being confident in who they are. From that foundation, you must also integrate what people outside your bubble believe about you as a school.”

Carol Dougherty, associate headmaster at Perkiomen School (PA), adds: “Make sure you know the numbers associated with the critical enrollment issues that your school faces at all stages of the admission process. Is there a gender imbalance in a certain grade? Is one grade smaller than normal? Is your international population glutted at a certain grade? Use those numbers to either support or invalidate the importance that is being placed on these issues and whether they are truly critical for your school.”

Getting More Specific

Once you have determined the end goal for the data you will be collecting, the next step is to determine the specific data that is needed.

Victoria Muradi, director of admissions and financial aid at Durham Academy (NC), has spearheaded a robust admission data collection and analysis program on her campus for years. However, she became curious about whether the data she was gathering were serving the end goal of predicting student success.

She explains, “Recently, I began wondering whether some or all of the data our process gathers were predicting success at our school. Are we getting the right data by asking the right questions? And once we get the answers, are the metrics we use in admission valid in determining who is going to do well? Prompted by a desire to improve our process, I dove in. The first step was to ask what we value in our students. I asked teachers, division directors, college counseling, and even college admission folks. As you can imagine, for a school spanning 14 grades, the answers varied. I then asked, what are qualities we appreciate in prospective students? Are we proactively and deliberately including indicators for these attributes in our applications, interviews, recommendation forms, etc.? When reading applications, are our committees measuring the things we value in our admission evaluations? The next step was to dissect the data further to determine whether our review of applicants was predictive… for new students. I went back and looked at transcripts and our evaluations during admission, and compared those to the admitted students’ Durham Academy grades, testing done in their tenure [here], athletic and club involvement, leadership, parent engagement... I asked my faculty on the admission committee to reevaluate those students now—a year later. The results are fascinating, and I am just starting to scratch the surface with the data.”

Often, beginning a task such as this can be daunting, especially when a school does not have a data history or a process or tool in place to capture salient data. Dougherty emphasizes that schools should start with the basics: “The data you can glean from the classic admission funnel, coupled with revenue and financial aid figures, are a good place to start. Once you’ve compiled those statistics, communicate with your business office to ensure that your numbers match theirs. This may seem obvious, but you want everyone on the same enrollment and revenue page. Next, benchmark your statistics using the resources available from NAIS. Create a ‘cheat sheet’ that quickly shows where you shine and where you need to focus compared to national, regional, and comparable school data. Read and research so that you understand the trends in the independent school market since 2008. Doing this research and benchmarking will indicate whether your experience this year is a harbinger of the future, or is an anomaly for a single year.”

Removing the Silos

While admission office data offer perspectives on student interest, behavior, and demographics, enrolled student data should be gathered from other school departments to create a richer, more complete picture of a student’s enrollment journey. Unfortunately, school-wide data collection in a single repository is merely a pipe dream for many schools, whose various departments maintain their own student information systems or are simply understaffed.

Jason Giffen, director of admission at North Shore Country Day School (IL), spearheaded a complex institution-wide data collection and analysis plan when he arrived at the school. While many aspects of his task were complex and time-consuming, the collation of school-wide data was his biggest hurdle. “If I have one frustration, it’s probably being able to get information out of where it’s housed. Those siloed pieces of information exist in any institution big or small. We made the biggest strides in getting people away from having information on spreadsheets or in their individual files and folders. We decided to make an investment in one integrated database system.”

Giffen also asserts that, if possible, having a single individual responsible for the collection and storage of data can be invaluable. “It’s so vital to sustain real institutional data, making sure that it’s coded well and cleaned up,” he states. “It’s important for someone to have some oversight and responsibility around that. Often if there’s no one person who does this, it can get out of control.”

Barbara Eghan’s data collection experience benefits from such an individual. While her school’s information lives in numerous databases, her campus has a dedicated data architect who is tasked with generating the types of information needed at any given time. “She just pulls it for us, and it’s almost like magic, because she knows where it all lives,” she says. “It is important to be able to know where it [the information] is and that it’s clean and that when you pull it once it’s going to be the same as if you did it next week, regardless of who does it.”

Data and the Board

Data and its analysis has no more important place than in the board room. And effective board reporting requires that the enrollment professional is familiar with a school’s key data, can articulate their importance to mission, and presents compelling evidence for or against strategic decisions. Board members need help in focusing not so much on the numbers but on the strategic questions the data can help the institution answer. In an era in which competition for students is fierce and the economics of running an institution are challenging, data analysis helps institutions sharpen their competitive edge by making better strategic decisions.

Maile Uohara focuses on simplicity when drafting information for her board. “When we present to the board, we use clean and simple presentations. We don’t present a lot of noisy graphs or Excel charts, because board members will get stuck in the minutia of the details rather than focusing on the big picture,” she explains. “I’m talking about a big arrow that points up and a big arrow that points down. It makes the conversation go much faster. The group as a whole gets on board much faster that way.”

The enthusiasm of his board for data was something Giffen found invigorating, and he decided to reward that enthusiasm with additional information. “Our board was really excited about what we were seeing and the information that was coming from it,” he says. “Often there’s a reluctance to share too much with the board. But if we’re all in this together and asking the right questions, then they’re not diverted off on some tangent that could disrupt what you’re doing. And I think in that regard, institutional research actually dials them in where you need them to be, as opposed to diverting them to another conversation.”

Christina Drouin, president of the Center for Strategic Planning, emphasizes admission and enrollment’s role in a strategic process: “Since most strategic planning research data today point to enrollment as a key strategic issue, I see wise heads and boards beginning to lean more heavily on their admission directors to make sense of it all. On the one hand, this requires admission directors to become resident experts in analyzing issues and trends. And on the other hand, it pushes the industry to supply accessible strategic information and analysis, professional development and training. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Small Waves, Big Ripples

So, where do you begin? For all the professionals interviewed, it began with a question. Barbara Eghan’s inquiries started basic and became more philosophical: “The big questions to be asked are about who’s coming to the school, who’s not, and why. At a very high level, I think that those are the questions that guide the kinds of data a school would seek to track. And then of course, I’m interested in the transformative nature and value of the Georgetown Day School experience. If there is a boost in student success, or it is beyond the range of what we would have predicted, that helps us understand our value proposition as a school.”

Jason Giffen’s ultimate goal was to tell his school’s story in a compelling way, so his approach was all in. “You roll up your sleeves and just dive into institutional research work, as there’s really no other way to do it. Even if other stakeholders do not get behind it in any meaningful way, at least you have information as an enrollment manager to tell your school’s story with more texture. Telling compelling stories is a large part of admission work, and investment in this type of research is likely to pay dividends.”

Jackie Christenson, senior product manager for Blackbaud’s K12 Group, has had plenty of experience helping schools unravel labyrinths of data. “Every school has to identify the key indicators for what makes a successful student at their school and a successful transition from candidate to student,” she says. “Every school is going to have slightly different indicators, but these metrics are the basis for a predictive model. Where this becomes powerful is when you look at data that span across your school’s offices and begin to validate whether candidates who received a high recommendation from your committee reviewers went on to live up to their potential: How is their academic performance, what is their involvement in the school community? Then ultimately you can track what they do post-graduation: Which college did they attend, what does their career path look like, and how does their success in life align with their giving contributions back to your school?”

While each school has a unique mission and organizational structure, the questions that connect the institution’s strategic plan with the strategic enrollment plan are similar. It is the answers to the questions that will be unique for each campus. Ultimately, it is longterm institutional data, used in conjunction with effective analysis and use, that will effectively drive a school’s strategy and ensure future sustainability.

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