Colleges have more data than ever. Here are 3 things to consider as they use it.

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DENVER — Student data comes with big promise. With the right kind of data, colleges can understand what’s causing students to leave school without finishing a degree, which students could benefit from more academic advising, and where they should focus their recruiting efforts. 

But getting access to this type of data — and using it in the right ways — can often be challenging. That was a key theme repeated by this year’s speakers and panelists at industry group Educause’s annual conference, hosted in Denver during the last full week of October.

“Many institutions are working to address issues like affordability, enrollment and graduation rates,” Susan Grajek, vice president for partnerships, communities and research at Educause, said during a speech. “Ongoing structural challenges can make this work difficult and expensive.”

College systems are often splintered, making it hard to share data across an institution. Administrators should also train employees about how to properly use student data while also protecting students’ privacy. And higher education institutions face growing cybersecurity threats. 

Below, we rounded up three important trends about using and securing data, according to conference speakers. 

Improving student success

Georgia State University has developed a reputation for being at the forefront of using student data. The institution is a high-profile adopter of predictive analytics, which can help colleges target services like advising to students who display warning signs, such as missing classes. 

But the university is also using data, including student grades, to improve its courses. Its learning design division recently created learning analytics dashboards to help instructors see how students are faring in their classes in real time. 

The dashboards helped instructors and learning designers pinpoint why certain students were struggling. And they provide learning designers with a “nonintrusive, nonthreatening way” to reach out to faculty who might need help, said Justin Lonsbury, the university’s director of learning design. 

In one example, they could see that a math instructor waited to grade a batch of quizzes until after the first test, leaving students without the opportunity to receive feedback and work on concepts they hadn’t mastered before their first large assessment. In another, they discovered that students tended to miss their assignments when they were due on Thursdays, spurring conversations about changing the deadline or reducing penalties for late work.

Using data responsibly and ethically

Student grades are just one example of the type of data that colleges are using to inform their decision-making. But colleges should also ensure that they are keeping this data private and minimizing risks when sharing students’ personal information across different divisions. 

At Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland with about 17,000 students, various employees are required to take data ethics training to help them think about how student data should be handled. The training is part of a broader initiative to help employees learn how to use data to make better decisions. 

The institution is also considering using predictive analytics on a larger scale, but administrators are speaking with students first before going that route, said John Hamman, the college’s chief analytics and insight officer. 

Arizona State University is similarly putting students at the center of discussions about how the institution is using data. That includes asking students about how they want their data to be used, said Debra Hanken Kurtz, the university’s director of data governance. 

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