Leveraging Data for Future-Proof Higher Education – Government Technology | Team Cansler

Universities are facing unprecedented challenges. Undergraduate enrollments nationwide fell by more than 1 million in the wake of the pandemic. Student expectations are changing. Lower fertility rates in recent years will result in a “school enrollment cliff” after Gen Z by the late 2020s.

Addressing each of these thorny issues requires the same thing: better information.

“People deal with uncertainty by searching for information,” said Mark Hampton, Executive Education Advisor at Amazon Web Services (AWS). “University leaders are looking to data to respond to these challenges. These are extraordinarily uncertain times and the best way to deal with it is with really good information.”

In particular, better data can help institutions address a key area that has grown in importance as challenges have increased: the student experience, which touches on virtually everything colleges and universities do.

“Universities can better understand what students need and provide it,” says Hampton.

“It’s about putting together the information we need to understand students’ needs, including information that we might not know could be useful.”


The irony is that colleges are already awash with data. Many created large-scale data warehouses in the late 1990s as part of the system modernization wave that addressed anticipated issues with Y2K. That was a significant step forward. But higher education institutions now need to update and transform the way they manage data and put it into action, says Hampton.

“These legacy data architectures should address other challenges,” he says. “They’re good for producing annual reports and meeting compliance reporting obligations, and if we’re smart, they can respond to trends over time. But that’s not the world we work in today.”

That’s because longitudinal views are helpful for tracking long-term trends, but today’s rapidly changing environment is “much more chaotic,” says Hampton. To understand student needs and respond to them in a timely manner, institutions need to focus less on the “official records” and more on what Hampton calls “microtransactions,” the small interactions that happen throughout a student’s day on the computer take place on campus.

For example, data from physical access systems can provide a wealth of information. This information will be used to monitor room usage and contact tracing during the pandemic and can help determine if students are on campus and if they are attending classes or using the library or other facility. Similarly, other touchpoints — including student devices connecting to campus Wi-Fi from different locations, Learning Management System (LMS) logins, or online interactions with faculty or advisors — can provide insights into changing behavior.

“It’s throwaway data for most people,” says Hampton. “But it becomes incredibly useful when it comes to helping institutions understand and improve the student experience.”


Gathering data that was once considered disposable can provide insights into facility usage and student engagement—and help answer questions like:

· Does a student perform better if they meet for class once or three times a week?

· Do students have the information they need to be successful?

· What causes some students to fall behind?

Understanding the answers to these questions can help institutions better respond to student needs. For example, the microtransactions that reflect what Hampton generates “the wealth of information that we generate as we move through the world,” as Hampton puts it, may involve students whose behavior — such as

Some privacy advocates may raise concerns about the collection and use of such granular data.

But as Hampton points out, retail and entertainment companies already routinely collect and use this type of information and much more. “These are the types of data that for-profit companies collect to manage the customer experience,” says Hampton. “We need to start thinking about this type of information to fill the gaps in information that is being reported in formal systems.

“Of course,” he adds, “every effort must be made to ensure that student data is collected, stored and analyzed in a secure manner.”

Data isn’t just the key to improving the student experience. It’s also an invaluable component in tracking and improving indicators of organizational efficiency — like how long it takes to process an invoice or grant application. As with student data, the goal is to identify sudden changes in business processes that may indicate larger problems or require adjustments in staffing or in the process itself.

“The process that we have is really what drives our outcomes, and we could pay a lot more attention to that process,” says Hampton. “The beauty is that this data exists. It’s just that they don’t fit into the traditional data warehouse that was probably designed 20 years ago.”


Start with readily available data and identify gaps. For example, a common retention challenge is making sure freshmen register for their sophomore semester on time. While most universities have extensive information on student progress through to admissions and enrollment for their first semester, few have an overview of each student’s subsequent progress and engagement as the spring semester enrollment deadlines approach. This is a critical tipping point where real-time information about student behavior is invaluable. “They don’t have anyone to hold their hand anymore,” says Hampton. “If we wait until the deadline, we’ve already lost the student.”

Start small. Tackle challenge at a time to build capabilities and a business case for broader data modernization. “Leaders are looking for the big solution,” says Hampton. “But if you can solve one problem and then scale to solve others, you’re well on your way to building a data solution that solves your institutional challenges.”

Don’t replace existing systems – complement them. Data warehouses remain valuable assets, but institutions need new technologies and methods to accommodate new types of data. “Rather than thinking about scrapping all of these things, think about incorporating them into a larger construct,” says Hampton. For example, by creating a data lake, institutions can leverage structured data from existing data stores as well as new types of information.

Understand that data by itself has no value. Institutions should invest in technology that enables them to collect, ingest and analyze data. Analytics solutions can generate real-time insights and help predict future trends, while data dashboards and visualizations can help executives make better decisions.

Consider privacy issues and ensure security. Institutions need to comply with existing laws and regulations, but they also need to recognize that student expectations have changed. “Given their experiences of interacting online, today’s students generally know and expect to be followed,” says Hampton. “We are committed to using data in a way that helps students. If we know someone is in trouble for not coming to campus and we can intervene, we more than justify that use of information.”

Making these changes also requires a shift in thinking. “It’s about using data more organically and less about archiving and analyzing data once a year,” says Hampton. “It’s about moving away from understanding data as a formal construct and thinking about what kinds of information we have that can help students. Therein lies the true upside.”

This piece was written and produced by the Center for Digital Education Content Studio with information and input from AWS.

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