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Higher ed leaders are managing a lot these days: high staff turnover rates, increasing student needs for academic and mental health support, revenue shortfalls, and dated technology. These issues were top of mind as our team recently connected with friends and colleagues in Las Vegas for the NACUBO Planning, Budgeting, and Analytics Forum. We heard from folks across the sector about ongoing efforts to use data to inform financial and planning decisions that could alleviate these pervasive challenges.

There was a clear sense of urgency in every room. The need to strategically use data to address those challenges for the long term took center stage. Here are my takeaways, which may align with what you’re seeing in your own campus context:

1. No institution is immune from the pressures facing higher education today. Panels throughout the three-day conference featured a diverse group of institutions – community colleges, regional publics, private liberal arts, and flagships. No matter the institution, the challenges raised on every panel and in every presentation were the same, echoing the list at the top of this post. Attendees expressed both comfort and concern about this; it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your struggles, and yet such widespread challenges naturally raise questions about how the field can navigate these collective issues.

Addressing these challenges will require institutions to learn how to get more for the resources they already have—not just in terms of dollars, but also expertise and time. In on our work with institutions across the country, we’ve seen that a deeper understanding of how to reallocate existing resources in the areas of staffing, training or technology enables colleges and universities to make investments that are responsive to their pressing needs. As a result, they shift away from merely surviving.

2. While data availability and access is widespread, it remains underutilized. Every panelist and presenter shared that they have the data needed to inform decisions. While there are always better ways to visualize or tell the important stories with the data, the fact that it’s available widely is an improvement. The next barrier to clear: getting institutional decision-makers to use the available information.

How often have you experienced this dynamic? Expensive software is purchased, time is spent launching new tools and…nothing happens. People don’t access the necessary data when they need it to inform their decisions. Being “data-informed” has as much to do with culture as it does with numbers and tools. If institutions are to succeed in this shift, they must consider an investment in change management as part of their data initiatives. All the data in the world won’t incite change without people’s willingness and inclination for employing it.

3. People are waiting for permission to lead. When asked why change efforts stalled, or failed to take root to begin with, nearly all cited leadership change or lack of executive sponsorship. We know that faculty and staff at all levels are immensely talented. How can we build the capacity of those folks to lead from within the organization, as opposed to waiting for direction from the top?

So often, institutions fail to provide needed training and professional development to support their data and technology initiatives. And leadership must signal its expectations and provide the trust necessary to foster widespread adoption of data-informed approaches.
The convening made it clear that, as a field, we understand the challenges our institutions are facing, and we have the data we need to make informed decisions to try and resolve those challenges. We just need to find the courage to act and to make the difficult decisions today that will ultimately transform our institutions to better serve the students of tomorrow.

Katie Hagan

Katie is a principal at rpk GROUP. She has an extensive background in fiscal policy and research within the context of both K-12 and higher education.