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Data is everywhere. In today’s age it is now possible to collect charts and graphs and metrics for almost everything we do. But what happens when a complex institution is pulling data from multiple, unrelated sources and needs to get clear, simple direction from that tangled mess of data?

The Project: Using Big Data to Understand Student Success

As the largest catholic University in the US, DePaul boasts an impressive student body of 21,000 students across 10 schools and colleges. They use several systems to track and manage their data and have individual operating budgets for each college. This means that when they need to know something about the university’s operation and performance, they have the data available, but that it may not always be in the easiest format to comprehend quickly.

In one such case, DePaul’s senior leadership team was tasked with answering the question, “How do our strategies for student success tie to specific outcomes and how do those outcomes impact our financial metrics?” Along with finding the answer, they also needed to be able to translate that information in a clear way to the President and Board.

This is where The Northridge Group came in. When the initial data pull resulted in over 80 pages of charts and graphs, DePaul realized they needed a fresh perspective from someone with both the expertise in analytics to understand their complex data, and the experience in operational excellence to iterate through the process to get to that “Ah ha” moment.

The project was two-fold. First, shift through the data to uncover what was truly relevant and where the interdependencies were located. Second, communicate clear, easy-to-understand findings tied to actions.

The Process: Following the Data

One of The Northridge Group’s key strengths is the ability to follow the data and use an agile approach to get from data overload to data comprehension.

Working with DePaul, Northridge asked a series of data-clarifying questions such as:

  • What type of decision is the board grappling with and what data will help inform that decision?
  • How do the various datasets align and what are some options for correlating that data in a way that will show its impact?
  • What is the format and terminology that will resonate with the board as an executive audience?

These questions helped peel back the layers of data and uncover a few key truths:

  • Financial reporting from individual schools and colleges was bogged down by indirect costs, or costs the college didn’t own. These costs weren’t tied to specific initiatives and needed to be removed from the calculations.
  • Different people and departments within the university had pieces of data, but these pieces weren’t being connected and tracked together. For example, the financial team’s reporting covered sources of revenue while reporting from the academic units provided information on student enrollment, retention, etc. Once these sources of data were clarified and correlated, modeling became possible.

The Solution: Using Modeling to Track Student Success

By ‘cleaning up’ the data to remove indirect costs and clarifying the direct costs associated with specific initiatives, The Northridge Group helped DePaul model how specific variables impacted both individual college finances as well as the university finances overall.

From the original 80 pages of disjointed data, DePaul now had a way to simplify the reporting. The team could show the direct financial contribution of a one-point change in student retention for each school or college, or how an increase in financial aid for a specific school or college would impact revenue.

The Message: Translating Data to Strategy to Impact

Aggregating and modeling the data was a key first step, but it then required iterative questioning and analysis to drill to a clear, concise message showing the links between specific strategies and long-term financial impact. This provided insight into the strategies with greater potential to keep students on track to graduate and the impact those strategies would have on the bottom line. In short, The Northridge Group and DePaul team were able to put a dollar value on student retention efforts.

Looking to learn more? Check out this webinar recording for another look into the process of how The Northridge Group and DePaul University used an agile approach to get from data overload to data comprehension.

The Northridge Group is a growing consulting firm that is committed to delivering value to our clients and a better experience for their customers. We specialize in Customer Experience and Operational Excellence initiatives, utilizing advanced data analytics and business process redesign to deliver measurable outcomes for our Fortune 200 and Government clients. To learn how we can provide the outside-in perspective you need to solve your business problems, contact us.

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