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The big data revolution can transform higher education

Richard Jones

August 16, 2013

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Change is afoot in the American higher education system. Today's colleges and universities have multi-million-dollar endowments and are staffed with highly capable professors, but there are still improvements to be made. Every incoming class at a college or university has a finite capacity and schools' administrators must make difficult decisions about the ways they admit students, provide financial aid and work toward their goals of retention and graduation.

Some have speculated that the key to making education more available is the advent of massive online open courses, or "moocs." Because they are affordable and open to everyone, moocs provide unlimited potential to advance the education of the masses. Still, some administrators maintain that open education isn't the key to improving education. The most important thing is the rise of analytics.

According to U.S. News and World Report, studying online is a big development, but it's not the biggest. Doug Guthrie, a professor of international business and management at George Washington University, sees a brighter future for the rise of data.

"Don't get me wrong, online learning will fundamentally transform higher education, bridging distances and creating access in ways that have not been possible before," Guthrie said. "But, in this arena, moocs are not a transformative innovation that will forever remake academia. That honor belongs to a more disruptive and far-reaching innovation - big data."

CIOs in higher education must work to gather more information on their students and also ensure data quality. If they do, they can expect to improve in several areas.

Admissions
Analytics can help schools determine what factors are most relevant in the admissions process. What correlations exist between the primary criteria - GPAs, test scores, recommendations - and academic success? By drawing clearer parallels, schools can make better determinations about who will fit well on their campuses.

Financial aid
Financial aid budgets are limited, and schools must spend their dollars wisely. Analytics can help them determine which students are most in need of financial aid to stay enrolled and on track to graduate.

Graduation rates
Ultimately, a school's job is to get as many students as possible to walk on graduation day. This means closely monitoring retention numbers and looking for ways to keep students advancing toward their goals. Statistical trends can show students their paths to the promised land.

Education is always evolving, and school administrators are looking for ways to improve the student experience. Data analytics can play a significant role.

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