Chart of data on a laptop computer screen

Graduate certificate in advanced analytics meets a critical need in higher ed

By

Erik Ketcherside

Education policy in the U.S. runs on data. Yet the amount and breadth of data available can outpace the ability of policymakers and administrators to digest it. This is particularly true in higher education administration, says Rebecca T. Barber.

Barber developed the program and teaches the coursework for the graduate certificate in Advanced Analytics in Higher Education in Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. The 15-credit online program prepares professionals to conduct advanced analytics to support data-driven decision-making in higher and postsecondary education.

Barber explained why she created the program and why it’s even more valuable today than when the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College launched the program in 2016.

Question: Who was this certificate designed for?

Answer: The program teaches advanced analytical techniques up through basic data mining for administrators at all levels of higher education.

Leaders in higher ed are asking for data on which to make decisions, but there is more to providing that data than meets the eye. The best analysts understand both the data and the business processes they are analyzing. But often we bring in technical experts who don’t know the business, or we have business experts without the technological background to perform a rigorous, actionable analysis. This certificate bridges that gap. It uses higher education examples and powerful tools to teach a subject-matter expert how to gather, cleanse, analyze and report on data to improve operations in every aspect of higher ed, including identifying the most promising prospects for enrollment, keeping students on track to graduation and even maximizing donations from alumni. The power of data is getting it into the hands of the front-line analysts and helping them make the most of it.

Q: How will this certificate program make those administrators better at their jobs?

A: The certificate provides four things, each of them applicable beginning with the first course:

  • Inspiration — We start with a look at the different and varied ways data is making a difference in students’ lives. Students have taken ideas back to their own institutions and introduced the possibility to new audiences, inspiring change and making their institution more effective right away.
  • Technology — We talk extensively about the tools available and teach several industry-leading tools that students can immediately apply in their work.
  • Analytical and critical thinking — How you approach a dataset, what elements you include and how they relate to the question being asked are critical to getting the right results. From day one we work on real-world problems, learning from the instructor and from each other a set of questions to ask, items to check and pitfalls to avoid. Students in the program often start asking new and different questions that lead to better results for the institution and promotions for the student.
  • Communication — Talking about data is hard, and the more advanced the technique the more difficult it becomes. We spend a lot of time on how to explain the analysis, present it to different audiences and communicate findings. All of us have sat through dry presentations of data that neither enlighten nor inspire. The certificate teaches you how to do both.
Rebecca Barber

Rebecca T. Barber

Q: Is this certificate unique?

A: Yes. While there are other programs that address pieces of this material, they all had what I saw as a major flaw: They’re industry-specific. Business analytics programs use business examples that tend to be unfamiliar to educators, and they have high program fees, putting them out of reach for higher ed employees. Engineering programs focus on math and programming, often with high entry requirements for prior math courses. Institutional research degrees and certificates tend to focus on assessment, measurement and qualitative data — important areas, but not helpful for someone working in enrollment or philanthropy. These programs rarely talk about predictive analytics, and when they do it is often covered as one small segment of a larger class.

In contrast to these programs, MOOCs — massive open online courses — may offer some of the technical topics for a lower cost, but they often do so in a disjointed way. And on average, under 4% of students who start a MOOC finish it, suggesting that the camaraderie and accountability of a course make a difference.

Q: Before this program was offered, how did people get the skills it provides?

A: People often put those skills together in an ad hoc way: a MOOC or two, maybe a book, some technical training from a vendor, or just learning as you go was the only way to develop the skill set. They learned the underlying analytical thinking skills by osmosis. There were nowhere near the number of skilled analysts in higher education needed to support all of the data requests.

Q: Is there an increased need for personnel with the skills this certificate program provides?

A: The pandemic has drawn attention to areas in which institutions are unable to get access to the data they need to pivot quickly. The data may exist but not be available, or it might be in a data warehouse but not in a form that actually answers the questions that have come up.

But even before the pandemic, the reality of the last decade has been that higher education has been pushed to do more and more with less and less. Analysis is at the heart of accomplishing the goal of doing more. Most of the “easy” work has been done, but there are many improvement opportunities available within higher ed that require a better understanding of what’s already happening. Data is key to directing limited resources — time, personnel, money — to where they can most benefit an institution and its students.

The Advanced Analytics in Higher Education certificate program offers multiple start dates throughout the year. View application deadlines.