Shaping higher education through cloud analytics
SAS provides a unifying platform for reporting, visualization and analysis.
to make data-informed decisions
George Mason University relies on SAS® Viya® to uncover insights to improve operational effectiveness and increase student success
The role of an institutional researcher can be challenging. Not only do they need to make sense of vast amounts of university data, they must be able to show and explain that data to a multitude of stakeholders. Their comprehensive data analysis provides crucial information on things like enrollment trends, retention rates and student success – all of which affect the direction of the university.
As the largest public research university in Virginia, George Mason University is a hub of educational activity, with 34,000 students and 1,400 full-time instructional and research faculty members. And it’s up to Dr. Thulasi Kumar, Associate Provost for the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness (OIRE), and his team of 14 professionals to provide data and decision support services to administrators.
“We needed a single, unifying platform that could do reporting, visualization, statistical and predictive analytics and machine learning. That’s why we chose the SAS Platform with Viya running in the cloud.” Thulasi Kumar Associate Provost, Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness George Mason University
A platform that unifies data visualization, statistical and predictive analytics
The university faced challenges in terms of data access and decision support. While Mason has a wide variety of data users, it didn’t have a common decision support platform. The OIRE team had a variety of data sources and tools, but was unable to integrate its data visualization, analytics and reporting. It had numerous data files in different places and was using desktop applications to share data with consumers, which is often privacy-protected. The team had concerns about accessibility, confidentiality, the inability to handle large data sets in a unified environment, and lack of access to consistent, accurate information.
“We wanted a single platform that could handle all these issues – and do reporting, visualization and statistical and predictive analytics,” Kumar says. “Looking long-term, we also wanted something that could do machine learning. Essentially, we were seeking a platform that could do all the complete 360-degree services in terms of decision support. That’s why we chose the SAS Platform with Viya running in the cloud.”
Benefits of cloud: cheaper, quicker and scalable
After committing to SAS, the OIRE team anticipated that the infrastructure development would take a couple months. However, the team was pleasantly surprised that everything was ready in a fraction of that time. “It only took two weeks to build the actual infrastructure and conduct some preparatory work,” Kumar says. “We were up and running in no time.”
With SAS Viya capabilities in place, the OIRE team decided to add SAS Visual Analytics and SAS Visual Statistics to the SAS Platform. They were easily added within a matter of days, as opposed to several months that it would usually take with on-site software. And it only takes a few days to increase the size and scope of the infrastructure, so the OIRE team can scale to accommodate additional traffic, requests and reports based on user acceptance.
“Because of cloud, we can maintain our focus on decision support, while IT aspects can be left to SAS,” Kumar says. “And privacy data is more secure in a cloud-based environment than in a typical campus infrastructure.
“Now we have everything we need in one unifying environment. And running SAS in the cloud also is much more budget-friendly, easier to scale and faster to implement.”
George Mason University – Facts & Figures
full-time instructional and research faculty members
students on campus, representing 130 countries
of students are employed within six months of graduation
Advantages to improved decision-making anywhere
“Ultimately, SAS Viya improves decision making at the university,” Kumar says. Mason’s senior leadership team, deans, department heads, vice presidents and administrators all use the reports, which contain valuable insights pertaining to students, degrees, career outcomes and more.
“The biggest advantage for us is that I can access our data and reports from anywhere in the world,” Kumar says. “I call it a privilege. We went from having all sorts of data sets disbursed across the institution to one unifying environment where we could put all of them in a cloud-based infrastructure. Everything is now done in one secure place. This is a tremendous benefit, because no matter where we are, we can continue to do our work.”
There’s also more flexibility and security. “I can give access to individuals to visualize the reports, and they can make changes as they see fit,” Kumar says. “Now they can extract the information and get the reports as well the data. And everything stays securely in the cloud, which is another big advantage to us in terms of information delivery.”
Answering big questions and discovering insights
Different stakeholders approach the OIRE team with unique requests. “We’re breaking down institutional-wide data into either program level or major level by student demographics,” Kumar explains.
“Department heads and deans have access to menu-driven data so they can slice it by gender, race or department and see the outcomes,” he says. For instance, deans are more focused on students in a specific major. Using SAS, they can look at enrollment or admissions for their specific department. If they don’t have enough students in the majors for their college, they could then reach out to the recruiters and say, “Hey, we need to get more students into this program. What steps can we take to achieve that?” Similarly, if a dean sees that the number of incoming applications for a department is not on par with last year, they can reach out to admissions coordinators who can work to improve the number of applications coming into the pipeline.
“Senior executives are interested in looking at the strategic information that is at the global university level,” Kumar explains. “For instance, what percentage of our students secure employment within six months of graduation? What is their average salary? Are they securing employment in their chosen majors?”
The SAS Platform has shed new insights on these questions. “We assumed that students with high SAT scores or GPAs were likely to succeed and secure employment when they graduate from Mason,” Kumar says. “But we found that the experiences they have during the time they are students at our institution make a huge difference compared to their high school transcripts or the grades they receive. We were able to come to a conclusion on certain variables of importance based on decision trees and regression analysis that we performed using the SAS Platform. For instance, did the student have an internship? If a student works – even part time – that greatly enhances their chance of securing a position in their chosen major.”
Looking ahead, the OIRE team would like to broaden its data analysis beyond institutional decision making to cover other academic areas of the university. For instance, it would like to further analyze faculty data, evaluate teaching workloads and the students who are likely to take certain courses – and when – to determine how those factors affect success and career outcomes. The team also plans to incorporate additional data pertaining to human resources, financial aid, sponsored funding and space utilization in the cloud.
“Long-term, we’d like to take a campus-wide approach to analytics,” Kumar says. “We’re excited about the opportunities to better serve the Mason community.”