New Way of Looking at Data Can Help Improve College Enrollment Insights and Student Retention

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Every day, more colleges and universities are using data analytics to improve their admissions and student success metrics. But as the amount of student and organizational data increases, it can be hard to find the “needle in the haystack.”

From recruitment to alumni relations, one of the biggest student enrollment management challenges faced by universities is that most administrators in these roles are not data savvy. They may have trouble sifting through, visualizing, and deriving insights from all the data known about a prospect, applicant, or student. In some cases, they may not even know what they should be looking for.

The way colleges and universities collect and keep data also poses some challenges. Data is often housed in disparate sources and systems such as CRMs, Excel spreadsheets and PDFs. From here it’s imported into a multitude of crowded pie charts and scattergrams, making insights hard to glean.

A New Way of Looking at Data

Unsurprisingly, higher education organizations are looking for new ways to visualize enrollment data and convey complex information in less time. Enter the glyph, a unique way of holistically visualizing all the data known about a student – allowing enrollment teams to see more and know more, faster.

Glyph-based data visualization is based on two decades of research into how the mind works to understand the world around it. Instead of seeing a dot on a scattergram, glyphs allow the user to visualize all the data available on a student – their status, ethnicity, gender, athletic affiliations, test scores, financial standing, and a variety of other data elements – so that they can visually contrast multiple recruits, applicants, and students all at the same time, in a single, interactive view.

What are Glyphs?

Instead of pouring over charts and graphs, glyphs are a new way of looking at data that ties into the human brain’s inherent ability to recognize patterns, shapes, and colors better than it does numbers.  Glyphs are a three-dimensional collection of geometric objects and data elements (academic, extracurricular, and personal information) that represent each student. The color, shape, size and position of the various geometric shapes provide insights at a glance and allow administrators to compare students, identify patterns, and find the proverbial needle in the haystack by combining data from multiple sources in a way that brings hidden insights to the forefront.

For example, admissions officers can start off by merging straightforward data into the platform such as gender, ethnicity, test scores, extracurricular information, and other binary indicators. These are represented by different colors. A green ring on a glyph may indicate that an applicant is an athlete, purple indicates that he/she is a straight-A student, and so on. From here, it becomes easy to quickly assess that individual in the context of the entire student population. This helps accelerate the time it takes for officers to make the best choices about everything from prospecting and enrollment to retention strategies.

Glyphs can also be manipulated to layer in complex subjective and objective information, such as data sets provided by outside data sources and consulting firms, and cross-reference that information to build a richer profile of students. For example, geospatial data, test scores, and environmental context metrics can be layered in to create a more complete picture of groups such as high-scoring students in low income neighborhoods, or low-scoring students in high-performing schools. From here, administrators can gauge whether a student is out-performing or under-performing in comparison to other applicants and whether they have other attributes that might make them a great candidate or a student more likely to need support services to reach success.

Creating a Data-Informed Culture

A key goal of glyph-based visualization is to democratize data so that everyone can understand data like a data scientist. Legends (both static and interactive) can be built into the glyph software to support ease of analysis, and individual data elements can be turned on or off to aid in more granular analysis. Users can also seamlessly drill down from a sea of glyphs representing thousands of applicants or students to a single glyph. This allows for both big picture analysis and granular insights.

By filtering and isolating data it becomes easier to ask questions of that data, such as “why is one student doing better than another?” or “what unique aptitudes do they offer that will benefit the class as a whole?”.  A glyph-based approach also reduces both unintentional and institutional bias that often exists in data analysis, by making connections where they should be rather than relying on reviewers alone to connect the dots.

New Insights for Student Retention

Because the role of an enrollment manager extends beyond matriculation, glyphs support the entire student lifecycle with the capability to quickly assess situations across recruiting, admissions, financial aid, and retention. The latter can be particularly vital; without the ability to quickly discover insights in matriculation data, retention management teams often find themselves guessing as to why students are having trouble staying in school.

This was the case at Gannon University, a Catholic university in Erie, Pennsylvania. Despite gathering data on student retention for several years, administrators struggled to uncover drivers into student attrition and retention. Instinct told them they might have an affordability problem. Turning to glyphs, however, helped them gain a fuller picture of retention risks and uncovered some previously unknown behavioral factors that indicated risk.

Using student academic, financial aid, and engagement data, an unexpected pattern quickly emerged. Students who’d withdrawn from the university typically exhibited low engagement scores. A quick zoom in to each student glyph revealed that the majority were commuter students. With this insight, Gannon moved forward with a program to boost engagement with a core element being the establishment of commuter lounges where students could hang out between classes. After taking this and other steps, the university ultimately improved its retention rate by 5% year-over-year for the last two years and put $3 million back into their budget.

Seeing Both the Forest and the Trees

Gannon University is one of many success stories in which higher education institutions have shifted from cobbling together data from multiple spreadsheets and systems to one in which users can view all of their student data in a single view – visualizing both the forest and the trees – to enhance analysis and find answers that inform student success programs more quickly and easily.

This revolution in data visualization streamlines workflow management, saves money, and turns entire enrollment management teams into data scientists with the ability to quickly discover insights they never knew were there.

About the Author

Taylor Riggs serves in lead roles for SynGlyphX across data wrangling, product development, and customer success. In her role, Taylor focuses on working with customers to develop and create 3D visualizations, identifying key insights, and training users how to drive insights and discovery is from the software. Through these interactions, Taylor bring keen insight to SynGlyphX’s product development road map. Sparked by an education in social science research, Taylor became passionate to help uncover insights and solutions for people through data analytics early in her career. Taylor has her M.S. in Demography and population health as well as a B.S. in Sociology and Psychology from the Florida State University.


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