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Higher Ed’s Missing Link: Turning Your Big Data Into Institutional Change

Published September 6, 2019

Most think there’s a tension between access and excellence—you have to choose one of the two. Not so, according to two planners from University of Texas El Paso (UTEP).

David Ruiter, associate provost for student and faculty success, and Roy Mathew, associate vice president for planning, described how UTEP found a third choice—turn access *into* excellence. 

Over the last 30 years, UTEP has pursued and accomplished the following:

  1. Increase access to UTEP for the local population, which is 82% Hispanic
  2. Earn a R1 Carnegie Classification

How did they do this? With metrics-based planning.

Below is a short recap by Sadie Wutka, director of content strategy, Society for College and University Planning, from Mathew and Ruiter’s presentation at the SCUP 2019 Annual Conference in Seattle.

Moneyball for Higher Ed

Inspired by the book Moneyball (the true story of how the Oakland A’s used data analytics to build winning baseball teams using less money than their competitors), UTEP developed their metrics-based planning framework based on comprehensive planning literature. 

Principles of Metrics-Based Planning

  1. Establish clear mission and identify KPIs of progress related to goals
  2. Turn comparative advantages into competitive advantages
  3. Develop a systems perspective of outcomes
  4. Analytics combined with social learning results in continuous improvement

An Example: Research Activity

How does it work? One example is how UTEP increased their research activity. They knew what they had to do—improve faculty productivity to increase research activity. The real question was, “How?” 

To find out, UTEP looked at their most highly productive faculty. They learned that faculty members who had a more extensive social network—both inside and outside the institution— also produced more research. So, UTEP focused on strategies and tactics that expanded the social networks of less-productive faculty. Faculty productivity and research activity increased.

People Are Rational

The framework is grounded in a belief that most people act in a way that makes sense for them. They just need new cues to change their behaviors.  “Provide the right set of signals for people to take rational action,” Mathew explained. “People always take rational action, but often not on the right signals.” 

For example, there was a time when most UTEP faculty were disengaged from initiatives to improve student success. UTEP planners sat down with faculty and showed faculty the number of students in their classes that came from low-income families. Then, planners showed faculty how much income these students were losing by not graduating on time. The impacts of poor student performance went from abstract to tangible, motivating faculty to improve classroom instruction and participate in more student supports.