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Professional Opinion

If data is the answer in higher ed, what is the question?

Empowering leaders to make informed decisions requires more than a four-letter word
University Business, July 2018
Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University.
Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University.

The January 2018 issue of UB featured its annual list of challenges for higher education, and No. 4 was both clear and encompassing: data analytics is everyone’s job.

In the survey of administrators, all groups selected “greater emphasis on leveraging data to identify and solve problems” as the top way their roles are evolving in 2018.

The one exception was finance officers, who ranked the emphasis on budgets slightly higher, although one could argue this as an issue of semantics, since a budget consists of elements that can be categorized as “data.”

In this era of increased accountability, diminishing resources and fierce competition, institutions have begun to see a culture of data-informed decision-making as a necessity instead of a luxury. Making good decisions depends on quality data and less on intuition or anecdotes.

The days of telling a good story with no concrete evidence to back it up are numbered.

Data rich, information poor

Too often leadership’s default answer to a problem is “we need data” without truly understanding what the question is. At a recent enrollment meeting, a vice president emphatically stated that students do not read their emails, and the immediate response from the room was a request for data.

Upon further discussion at subsequent meetings, the real question emerged: How can we get students to respond to the important emails we send?

If we had initiated our data collection efforts based on the original statement (“reading the emails”), we would never have arrived at the more meaningful issue at hand: “How do we promote an action from our students?”

Starting with a strategic question before consulting or collecting data—and not letting preconceived ideas influence analysis or decision-making—enables an institution to get deeper into the layers of the critical issues.

We accumulate large amounts of data through our transactional systems, but these data structures were never designed to facilitate the broad, cross-disciplinary analysis that higher education now demands.

For many of us, the acronym “DRIP” describes our current situation: data rich, information poor. An appropriately defined question helps measure what matters, and helps turn it into meaningful information and ultimately better decisions.

Connecting data dots

The myth in this world of self-serve business intelligence is that anyone can make sense out of the data. The reality is that the skill set required to interpret data effectively is the reason that data scientists are in such high demand throughout higher education and the business world.

Creating a chief data officer position, either in title or function, can provide institutional vision that oversees the traditional silos of higher education and connects the data dots.

Creating and connecting analytic centers of expertise in various departments will enable those leaders to leverage their data with resources that have specific functional knowledge coupled with analytic skills.

Finding prospective employees with this skill set can be difficult. One remedy is to develop an analytics degree program or certification, and then use those students as interns. This is a great way to build a “farm system” of internal resources while creating practical work experience for the students’ résumés.

Information requires wisdom

Data will not give us an answer. In its raw form, data are just signals. With context, they become information. With meaning, they become knowledge.

Experience and wisdom lead us to make decisions. Everything beyond that raw form involves the human element. When you leverage data with technology and invest in people, you begin to create a culture that is data-informed. And when you put that data into action, you make change that is meaningful and that truly makes a difference. 


Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University.