Laptop with hard copy handout of charts and graphs - symbolizing data needs

Anticipating Data Needs in Times of Crisis

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This pandemic has impacted virtually every higher education institution. Leaders are making quick decisions in order to mitigate risk, respond to significant cuts and losses, and maintain sustainability. This article is focused on anticipating data needs in times of crisis; offices can and should prepare to support their institutions now and in the future.

Institutions often lean heavily on departments that support data, reporting, and analysis to provide the information and resources needed to help inform decision making. Often leaders need the analysis completed quickly in order to ‘fight fires.’ But these offices also can play a supporting role by informing success of new, ad hoc initiatives. Assuring that the institution tracks quick changes without creating data issues. A new normal will come eventually. The preparation of data analyst offices today will help future data-informed decision making.

Faced with Fast Change

Decisions are being made in a hurry to help students through this difficult time. To name just a few:

  • Processes changes or escalation
  • New processes creation
  • Recruitment plans (and sometimes admissions criteria) adjustments
  • Enrollment deposit due date extensions or waivers
  • Course switches to online modalities
  • Residency requirement reassessments
  • Term start dates adjustments
  • Commencement and summer program cancellations or made virtual

How Do I Even Keep Up?

How can we keep up with all of this change and provide insightful data now? Staying in the conversation and making sure you are aware of what is getting ready to happen is incredibly important. In a lot of ways, your office probably already is.

You are the office tasked with pulling data and analysis to help inform departments about the cost and potential impact of the changes they make. Don’t stop there! Use the tools you have to develop dashboards to ‘track’ the change as soon as it’s clear what the decision will be.

Eventually, the same people asking you to help inform their decision will ask you, ‘how did that work?’ Be ready to respond. In this next section, I offer several ways data analysts can anticipate senior leaders’ needs and be ahead of the request before it is even asked.

Anticipate Showing the Data — Quickly

Data dashboard on a laptop screen - symbolizing data needs.Dashboards can be powerful tools to track success or failure of initiatives. Further, quick access to trends and what is ‘really’ happening limits the number of decisions made off of false assumptions. This can be very valuable in guiding the decision-making process. For instance, for that new recruitment strategy or campaign, create a dashboard tracking responses of students included in the campaign.

  1. Consider creating trend charts that show behaviors such as enrollments, depositors, housing commitments, etc. by weeks compared to prior years. Make the charts dynamic – filtered by populations such a resident/non-resident, level, and other demographic filters. These can be valuable tools in confronting false assumptions. Or they may provide validation to concerns, helping decision makers focus on what will make a difference. Timeliness and transparency are essential for these to be effective tools.
  2. You should anticipate that any temporary change to a major process may lead to future consideration of keeping the changed process. Facilitate and encourage collection of data to identify those who are getting a special treatment. Offices implementing the change may keep an Excel spreadsheet of who was impacted, or may not track at all. But is there a field your Student Information System (SIS) where this can be coded without breaking existing processing? This will allow for monitoring volume/impact and, when there is time to reflect, will provide good data on impact and success or failure. Don’t let these unusual pilots go to waste!
  3. Technical changes to automatic reports will be needed. With uncertain times, you’ll need to plan for many different scenarios.
    • What if all courses are virtual?
    • Are some classes hybrids of online and in-seat engagement?
    • What adjustments have to be made to classroom sizes to accommodate social distancing?
    • Do start and end dates/times need to be adjusted?

The list goes on and on. Data analyst office reports often update automatically, or at minimum daily (such as course sections, capacity, enrollment, location reports). The accessibility of this information for those who are trying to plan can be a valuable tool.

There’s More to It Than Data

You have identified a helpful analytical solution, now what? Seasoned data analysts know that providing data is only a fraction of the equation. Simply deploying a report or dashboard is not enough for the information to be appreciated. There are non-data considerations such as communication, documentation, negotiation, dissemination, and data literacy. Further, some traditional tactics do not work in a remote environment. There are no more hallway or after-meeting conversations for information sharing. Let’s face it, that’s not a great strategy for communication anyway. Below are strategies for sharing your hard work with a customer service mindset. Your approach to sharing data needs to be multi-faceted. Implementing one of these things may not work for all customers, so think about implementing a combination of approaches for more breadth (if not all).

Laptop with hard copy handout of charts and graphs - symbolizing data needs

Find Your People and Work Together

Collaborate with other offices doing similar work with a shared vision of making information easy to find for your customers. This infrastructure may already exist in your organization. So, don’t re-invent the wheel. In that case – awesome! Participate and use what your customers already know. Working in sync, consider doing the following:

1. Make sure your report, dashboard, or analysis is easy to find. Many enterprise level reporting tools have integrated functionality to share information. However, some will use a website or other tool to do this. To make as easy to find as possible, do the following:

    • First, don’t go it alone. Are there other offices, similar positions supporting similar customers, or tools already in place? Working together instead of against each other is huge. You have a common goal. Make it easy for customer to find and use your data!
    • Post all in one place. Make sure customers only need to remember one link to find ‘their stuff.’ Also, consider NOT branding the tool for your office. Rather, call it something your customer can remember. Once you have a place to share, use that location in all your communications to help train customers on where to go.
    • Organize security and access in a way that allows for growth and ability to manage maintenance down the road.
    • Catalog your folders, reports, dashboards with good naming conventions. Think like your customers. What key words would a new person interested in finding information on a topic use to search for your report or dashboard? Aim for consistency.

2. Identify primary point of contacts for each area are servicing (e.g. Admissions, Financial Aid, Residential Life, a college or school, etc.) with assigned responsibility to advocate for you. Keep those contacts trained and informed on what’s available, periodically sharing with them information they can distribute to their units.

3. Use good documentation and definitions to build trust with what you are delivering -particularly for technical users. Hopefully, you already have a data governance platform. No matter what, you want to have a group of users who understand and represent certain data be a part of a collaborative group and collect/share/document definitions and data sources used in reporting and analysis.

4. Train customers on what you have available, how to use it, and what questions the data might answer. Create video, present at customer group meetings, and empower your primary point of contacts by assuring they are well-informed.

Look for the Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way colleges and universities operate for quite some time. But the data challenges posed by the crisis will be with us even longer. The savvy data professional will use this time to think outside the box. Anticipate coming data questions and leadership needs. And collaborate with like-minded colleagues at their own institutions and others across the country. Everyone will have to face these challenges. But by thinking ahead, you can turn the challenges of this moment into real opportunities.

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Misty Haskamp

Misty serves as Director of Enrollment Research at University of Missouri-Columbia.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.