AWS Public Sector Blog

The Art of the Possible: the Power of Data and Analytics in Education

A guest post by Darren Catalano, CEO of HelioCampus and former vice president of analytics at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).


Higher Education is at a tipping point. External factors, including an increased focus on student success and decreased revenue from previously reliable sources, are putting more pressure on institutions to become more efficient and show better results. Institutions cannot remain idle as the landscape changes. Instead, innovative universities are using analytics as a strategic enabler to transform the university and to change its culture.  If you enjoy tackling big challenges, you are in the right place!

Whether you are a Chief Data Officer, Institutional Researcher, or BI Developer, we must seize the opportunity to transform our role on campus. The onus is on us to make a compelling argument that we are part of the solution by highlighting our capabilities and showing the university “the art of the possible” when it comes to unlocking the value in our institutional data.

Transparency promotes accountability

In order to facilitate meaningful conversations and to elevate our role, we must be much more proactive and engage the university community in a significantly different way. Before we would ask: what are your requirements? What do you want? And then build, test, and release. Those days are in the past. We can no longer show up to meetings with a blank sheet of paper. Now, we need to show what could be. To achieve this, we need to rapidly deploy models that can provide an immediate impact.

The cloud allows universities to cost effectively and securely host, process, and deliver data analytics services. Institutions should focus on building a data platform that connects disparate data from sources across the university enterprise and transforms the information into flexible data models. These models accelerate the ability to prototype and quickly answer ad hoc requests. We must focus on providing easy access to the modeled data by delivering a service catalog that includes easy-to-understand dashboards, predictive applications, forecast models, and operational reporting.

But how do we get to this point where data is critical in all decisions around student enrollment, engagement, and success?

Key to overcoming this challenge is demonstrating the potential – the “art of the possible” to university stakeholders in order to demonstrate the benefits of having a unified data layer. For example, by combining data sets, we can analyze transfer, retention, and graduation rates in comparison with admissions data to see differences in profiles; combine prospective student and pre-enrollment data with retention data to spot significant retention impacting variables; and look at first-term class registration patterns to determine the impact on course success.

Demonstrating the potential

Analytics in higher education have never been more important and those institutions that thrive will use their data as a competitive advantage. Cultural change does not happen by accident but rather it is the result of a consistent intentional effort. In order to facilitate cultural change on campus, follow these five lessons learned:

  1. Invest in a solution
  2. Organize for performance
  3. Empower leaders to use data
  4. Embrace transparency
  5. Highlight success

Our job is to take the complexity out of the data and present it in an easily understood and consumable fashion. Data has the ability to make transformational changes within an institution. For a practical example of how a large university used data and analytics to improve their student success, read the blog post highlighting UMUC.