When you have nearly 38,000 students enrolled in your university, the data challenges are formidable. At The University of Alabama, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) team works with administrators to make sure that data is used effectively to help students – and the university – prosper.
Recently, we talked with Lorne Kuffel, Executive Director of Institutional Research and Assessment, about his team’s use of analytics and data visualization within the education environment.
What does the OIRA team do for The University of Alabama?
Lorne Kuffel: We produce the official data for enrollment and staff reporting for the institution, which is also sent to the state and federal government. Plus, we do a great deal of internal analyses based on that data, so we can help monitor the general operations of the university.
The OIRA team monitors things like the graduation rates of our students, and the fail and withdrawal rates associated with specific courses. We also analyze time-to-degree information, faculty teaching loads and salary analyses for our institution compared to peer institutions. On top of that, we get anywhere from 500 to 600 information requests annually, which we try to turn around quickly.
Our target response rate is to get questions answered within 10 working days. A lot of times, we can do it within 24 hours because many requests seek similar information. In those cases, we can pull up a report and run it – or make some slight updates to it – and produce the information again. The institutional data knowledge and SAS expertise of the OIRA staff are essential in providing accurate information in a timely manner, often in a very short turn around.
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How has analytics affected the work your team does?
Kuffel: Our analytics transformation began about nine years ago. At that time, the office was manually pulling information, printing it on pieces of paper, and transcribing that information into spreadsheets that were distributed as responses. It was a tedious and time-consuming process.
By moving to SAS, we were able to eliminate a great deal of that work. We could pull the information, create our data files, do our analysis, and actually produce the output that we wanted to send in a streamlined manner, requiring much fewer work hours per project. The way this office operates now compared to before is not even night and day – the difference is far greater than that. Before SAS, our turnaround on projects was typically several weeks to months. Now it’s quite often just minutes or a few days. In addition, the quality and complexity of our work has greatly increased.
Your team recently acquired a data visualization solution to make reporting more self-service. Can you tell us how that has affected your operations?
Kuffel: We chose SAS Visual Analytics to provide reports that are dynamic for administrators to use. They can go into a report and select different things – like looking at enrollments or faculty numbers over time – and then they can make a selection to see what the data looks like by college, race, sex or other demographics. And just like that, they can dynamically see the results.
The reports are beneficial to our administrators because they now have the ability to evaluate a lot of “what if” situations. We've been able to give them the ability to dive down into the data, and they can actually see what’s happening and spot patterns with students. They can examine the credits they’ve earned in a certain time period, what their GPAs are in their first semester, etc. And if they want to throw in some other parameters, we can add those to the report fairly easily, giving them a dynamic presentation as opposed to just a table or graph.
Our administrators are empowered to go in and play with the data themselves. It’s helpful and really quite powerful information for people who are trying to plan how best to implement different policies for the university.
How do you see your use of this reporting effort evolving?
Kuffel: Right now we have a handful of administrators in academic affairs, student affairs and the president’s office who use the SAS Visual Analytics reports we’ve developed. But that number will grow, as will the analysis we conduct.
For instance, we are building a dashboard showing the performance of the vice presidents’ offices. In the future, all seven of the vice presidents’ offices will be using reports out of this system to demonstrate how they're moving the institution forward and how they're performing the functions they should be doing. The only real challenge for these groups will be to create the measures that they want to use. After that, my team can build reports for them very quickly.
We also plan to use SAS Visual Analytics reports to replace the university’s external fact book, which contains standard static information about the institution. We envision a broad, dynamic institutional information presentation in the future.
We've been able to give [administrators] the ability to dive down into the data, and they can actually see what’s happening and spot patterns with students.
How do students at The University of Alabama benefit from your use of education analytics?
Kuffel: Ultimately, our goal is to provide an exceptional education to our students and see them through graduation. Because we produce a great deal of information about program functioning, we can help our departments and programs improve their course offerings. And the university is better equipped to identify students who are struggling academically to help turn things around.
To support this effort, we can build intricate data modeling procedures to sharpen our focus on very small groups of students. We can look at individual communities, counties and high schools to see if there's something about a high school or a transfer college that has an impact on a student being more successful or less successful. Through our analysis, administrators can determine the right type of services and support to offer students to get them on track to graduate.
Have you uncovered any surprising trends from your analysis?
Kuffel: One thing that surprised us was the correlation between a student asking for an official transcript and then leaving the university. Prior to using analytics, that’s something that we hadn’t thought of as an indicator before. Now we realize that this request is a red flag, and it’s actually the best indicator of a student leaving the university in their first year.
It sounds like a simple correlation, but it is very effective. Our administration can use that information to identify students early on and reach out to provide resources to help them along the way.
How do you see your use of analytics expanding to other areas, to evaluate new things?
Kuffel: There are a number of areas where we can go. For example, we want to know how students are paying for their education, how that influences their progression at the institution, and how this affects their living once they leave the university. We would like to help students graduate faster, so the four-year graduation rate increases. Many students are accruing loans as they attend the university, so we want to see them leaving with lower debt rates, so they can be more effective income earners early on.
All of these things can have a tremendous impact on how we operate as a university and how students succeed. I believe The University of Alabama will continue to achieve great things through this program, and I’m excited about what the future holds.
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