For years, higher education has been called data-rich and information-poor. Now, the ability to collect and analyze institutional data is becoming sophisticated enough to tap into strategic insight at very high levels. The era of big data in higher education is here, ready and waiting for analysis. Higher education has a complicated web of data sources to manage and understand. Is it time to appoint a Chief Data Officer, who is also a Chief Narrative Officer, and who is responsible for directing a coherent institutional understanding based on robust data?

Two plenary sessions at the recent ACT Enrollment Planner­s Conference reminded us of the growing importance of data in higher education management. Eric Newberger from the U.S. Department of Commerce, who has had a career of making U.S. Census data accessible and visual, reminded us of the long history of the U.S. Census. He demonstrated the exponential growth in the scale of data being collected since the census’ inception in 1790, stressed the ability of data visualization to make big data accessible for interpretation, and underscored that the census’ purpose has always been to use information as a tool for governance. We can argue about whether or not our nation has optimized the use of this data for governance, but the sentiment is essentially correct and applies to the way we ought to use data in higher education. We have the ability now to bring information and insight to leaders. We should leverage this ability to enable administrative leaders, faculty, and boards of trustees to make the best informed strategic decisions.

We now have an unprecedented amount of data available to us in higher education: CRM data, web analytics, enrollment data, student data, learning management system data, and alumni data. The list goes on and on, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, if we are able to use the data available to us, our analytical capability can be refined to allow us to answer specific and difficult questions, like how to optimize financial aid, what factors are barriers to student persistence, and how best to engage alumni. On the other hand, the volume of data is overwhelming and requires real expertise to manage effectively. If you don’t have the right tools, the right focus, and the right people to interpret the information, you’ll be hard-pressed to make data-driven decisions and will miss the opportunity to find riches in the goldmine you’re sitting on.

A major hurdle is that higher education suffers from structural issues surrounding data management and data culture. The CIO is responsible for the technology but not necessarily for the use of the data. Who’s responsible for data culture? Data analytics is often spread across the institution, from institutional research to enrollment management, the registrar, academic affairs, student affairs, and advancement, to name a few. Often, information is shared with the board from these disparate sources with varying degrees of competence and depth. Because of these information silos, there are, in most cases, multiple versions of the truth. This reality makes decision-making more difficult. To get beyond this hurdle, Eduventures recommends that institutions approach data management the same way they work to manage a coordinated institutional identity through branding—in other words,  tell a coordinated data story with the same rigor.

This approach to data involves more than a performance dashboard, although this is a step in the right direction. The approach that we are recommending involves elevating the responsibility to finding the main plot and the subplots in the institutional narrative and the data to support it.

At ACT, Cheryl Phillips, Hearst Professional in Residence at Stanford University and former Seattle Times Data Innovation Editor, addressed the need to find the narrative in the data in order to make an impact. At the Seattle Times, she and her team of reporters layered narrative story forms on top of analytic skill in the emerging field of data journalism. Ms. Phillips stressed the need to do analytical due diligence as you mine large data sets to explore unseen patterns. She also stressed the need to curate the story and to lead the audience through the data with discrete facts that articulate your narrative. Finally, she warned us to “mind the gap,” looking for where the data is missing so that you don’t misinterpret the story.

Human beings are predisposed to creating narrative, a facet of our existence which is both powerful and dangerous. It’s easy to fall prey to confirmation bias. If you take care in the analysis, though, you can practice verified persuasion. We would all like to tell true stories accurately. Given the volume of siloed data in higher education, wouldn’t we be wise to create oversight not only of the systems that capture our data, but also of the use of our data to find the narrative thread that helps us govern? Who on your campus holds this responsibility?

Helping you to understand how to maximize the opportunity that big data offers is a core focus of our research going forward. We look forward to working with you to help you on this journey.