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Marshall University recently released an update on their presidential search, which detailed some of the questions posed to the remaining candidates in the most recent round of interviews. These questions addressed how candidates plan to respond to state funding cuts, the decline of West Virginia’s college-going population, the affordability of tuition and the need to attract and retain talent for the university.

The answers to all these questions can be found using data analytics.

Like many other industries in the U.S. economy, higher education institutions can greatly benefit from utilizing their data as a strategic asset. Universities generate and collect an immense amount of data including student demographics, historical test scores, real-time course completion rates, financial aid data, etc. This information can be used to gain insight into the student experience, optimize student outcomes and increase student retention rates — all of which could prove to be key factors in responding to the looming funding challenges facing higher education.

Other universities have found success launching similar data analytics initiatives.

Saint Louis University applies data analysis tools to identify prospective students most likely to enroll. They use these results to strategically allocate marketing resources and drive decision-making around prospect outreach. In 2019 they saw their largest freshman class in history, which they largely attributed to their data-driven approach.

Georgia State utilizes its data to target at-risk students in real-time based on 800 different risk factors. When a student is tagged as “at-risk”, advisors intervene and set up academic support services for the student. Their efforts are reported to have produced an additional $10 million per academic year in tuition and fees as well as an additional 2,000 graduates per year.

Taylor University harnesses its data to optimize student financial aid. The objective is to strategically award financial aid in a way that increases enrollment without compromising revenue goals. As a result, their prospective student pool went from 10,000 students a year in 2012 to 60,000 students a year in 2018, leading to their largest-ever enrollment class.

These analytics efforts are gaining national traction. National higher education associations including AIR, EDUCAUSE and NACUBO went so far as to release a joint statement titled “Analytics can save higher education. Really.” The release went on to say “For every semester we don’t do everything we can to ensure student success — including using analytics to increase student progress and completion — students leave our campuses without graduating, discouraged and more in debt than when they entered.”

So what does this mean for Marshall?

It means they need to act. And fast. The application of big data and analytics is already fundamentally changing the competitive landscape of higher education. Those who don’t adapt will be left behind.

At the end of Marshall’s presidential candidate interviews, the question was asked: “What do you envision as a best possible future or vision for Marshall?”

I would like to envision a university that uses data to enhance every aspect of the student experience, to make college more affordable and accessible and to become a model for how data-driven approaches can help transform higher education.

Skye Reymond is a Culloden resident and the co-founder and president of XG Analytics, a data science consulting company based in Huntington.

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