Filling Classrooms Through Intelligent Analysis

Florida State University uses advanced analytics to gauge how well it "markets" itself to hundreds of thousands of prospective students every year.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 29, 2004

5 Min Read

Because American universities compete for students almost as fiercely as businesses do for customers, business intelligence has been on campus for some time, and Florida State University was among the earliest in higher education to adopt it. The Tallahassee school has been using software from Business Objects for nearly six years, when the state government forced its universities to manage their own financial and human-resource processes. FSU has been refining and expanding its analytics and reporting capabilities ever since.

"Our deployment has grown dramatically," said Rick Burnette, Director of Student Information Management at FSU. From the budget and HR departments, BI spread first to admissions, and from there it has permeated nearly every facet of the institution, from course scheduling, student housing and faculty evaluation to financial aid and the allocation of football tickets. The school has now developed more than 1,000 reports to deal with all this activity, and they go to about 1,500 Business Objects users. But perhaps BI's most important function for FSU has been admissions and enrollment. As Burnette put it, "If we don't have students, none of us would have jobs."

FSU is an enormous organization. It has almost 40,000 enrolled students, both undergraduate and those pursuing advanced degrees. It receives close to 55,000 applications a year and about 300,000 inquiries from people who have shown an interest in attending. But it's not a one-way street: FSU must also go out and find students, and not just any students, but the best ones possible -- as well as their tuition checks.

To borrow a phrase from the commercial world, the "business problem" for FSU was marketing itself effectively to prospective students, and then evaluating the performance of that marketing.

To do this, of course, the school had to compare the number of people who applied against the number who were accepted against and the number who eventually chose to enroll. One of the bigger challenges Burnette faced in implementing the analytics software, then, was making sure he linked the data properly. All student information is stored in a homegrown IBM DB2 database as well as a 30-year-old Virtual Storage Access Method (VSAM) file, and from these FSU retrieves its raw enrollment figures. The school's application forms, which have been online since 1996, are processed by an Oracle database, and from this FSU retrieves the number of people admitted and rejected. Finally, a FoxPro database and data-mining tool tracks the recruitment process of prospective students -- the pre-application figures.

All of this is fed into a homegrown data warehouse, in which the information is converted into DB2 tables. Of these data sources, Burnette said, "They don’t always play nice with each other." He continued, "When the database manager joins recruitment data with enrollment data, you need someone who knows something about that data to see if it runs properly."

That person was Burnette. He also had to create the data universes to begin with, by going out to the various departments, discovering what sort of information they required or had access to. As important as it was to find the best students, the university also needed to monitor the diversity of its student body. "We want to be able to find unique subsets of students, and send them each a different message," Burnette said.

The result: Burnette had to carve out a "horizontal silo" that cut across the university's offices and departments -- the registrar, admissions, financial aid, housing, the graduate schools, etc. -- and gather the requisite information from each. Now, with the BI apps set up and running, "I can be sitting in an enrollment management meeting, with laptop in front of me, and if someone asks me a particular question, I can say, 'This is how many left-handed Albanian students we have.'"

For FSU admissions, the key report is something called a funnel report, which tracks students as they're "funneled" from inquiries, to prospective students, to applicants, to accepted students and then finally to enrolled students. Along the way, as the correspondence comes in, flagged reports go out that mark honors students, for example, or those from low socio-economic backgrounds, or students who will be the first in their family to attend college, so they can be isolated for further recruitment.

The reports come in two basic forms -- summaries and lists. The school uses summary reports to do frequency counts. For instance, the number of accepted students from each county in Florida, and each high school. Or the number of students with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5. The need for slicing and dicing is acute, in seemingly endless numbers of categories. List reports provide long tallies of, for instance, the names of students who have yet to send their application fees.

FSU is now in the middle of another "paradigm shift," Burnette said. The university is putting into place a Web-based broadcasting tool from Business Objects, which will provide department heads with a daily standardized look into their respective operations, accessed by browser from their desktops. Up until about two years ago, he said, the school had been retrieving its reports mostly on an ad hoc basis, with IT punching in the queries, and then converting the mined data into Excel spreadsheets. Now, FSU IT is in the midst of training people to use these more "corporate" reports, Burnette said.

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