Data is at the Heart of the Biggest Stories in Higher Education

by | Feb 15, 2024 | Education

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The world of higher education is awash in data. Hardly any decisions are made without some kind of analytics to back them up. From admissions to curriculum to any and all financial decisions, the institutions rely on a steady flow of data to reach conclusions.

The best analytics solutions can integrate data from various sources to make sure everyone is looking at the same information and using the same metrics when they make their decisions. But even the best solutions can’t do anything when the data sources are disrupted or if there is no data to work with. Here are a couple of recent high-profile examples of how data has influenced college decision-making, in one case because it was available, and in another case because it wasn’t.

Reinstituting standardized tests

Many colleges and universities dropped their requirements that prospective students submit an SAT or ACT score even before the pandemic to encourage a wider pool of applicants. During the pandemic, the number of students taking the standardized tests decreased drastically, forcing more schools to drop the requirement. Now, schools are looking at whether or not they should bring back standardized tests as part of their admissions process.

Dartmouth College is the most recent school to reinstate the test requirement, and it used data to make its decision. Dartmouth was able to look at admissions data for years in which the SAT/ACT was required and those in which it was optional. Among the school’s findings was that the standardized test scores are an important predictor of a student’s success in Dartmouth’s curriculum. The school also found that because submitting the tests was optional, some students – particularly those from lower-income backgrounds – might not submit test scores that actually would have benefitted their admission consideration.

Institutions across the country are weighing whether or not to make the same move as Dartmouth. They will certainly use data to inform the move they do or do not make. One of the factors they will be considering: Some states use the SAT as a way of measuring school quality, which they report to the federal government. Students are still taking the standardized tests. Whether the scores will be used is another matter.

A data delay

In 2020, the government demanded that the Education Department make changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The changes were intended to make the form shorter and more streamlined, but there were problems that delayed the rollout in late 2023. The new form was released in December, already three months later than when the FAFSA usually becomes available, and the technical issues caused the Education Department to announce that it wouldn’t transmit FAFSA application data to colleges until March.

When organizations decide to become data-driven, there are certain expectations that develop. Users expect the data to be where they need it at a certain time, whether that is daily, weekly, or even in real-time. If there is a disruption to that data, it can have a trickle-down effect on the decisions that are made. If a daily report isn’t available first thing in the morning, for example, that could prove costly for an organization that depends on a routine that stems from that report.

In the world of higher education, there is a flow to the data every year that informs their decisions, and this year that flow has been interrupted. Usually, the FAFSA opens in October and colleges get the data not too long after that. The admissions calendar revolves around that information, and most schools have a May 1 deadline for enrollment and financial aid decisions. This year, that is all up in the air, because schools don’t have the data they need. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has called for institutions to extend their enrollment and financial aid deadlines beyond May 1. State agencies have also been forced to extend deadlines for state financial aid applications, since they rely on FAFSA data to award grants.

One other group that is affected by all this data – or, in some cases, the lack thereof – is students. They are making important life decisions without the kinds of analytics solutions that the colleges and universities have access to. Deadlines can only be pushed so far before decisions need to be made. For students, the data they need to make those decisions is coming later than ever.

John Sucich
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