Learning to Love Data

Data can help a financial-aid office make strategic decisions. In a guest post today, Christine Saadi describes how she came to embrace data’s potential, even though she prefers working with people to working with numbers. Ms. Saadi, director of student financial planning at Alvernia University, will present on a panel on this topic at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference on Sunday.

Data. Yes, it is a four letter word. But rather than being intimidated by the word, use it to your advantage!

I began my career in financial aid about 20 years ago and have worked for a state institution, a private institution, a proprietary institution, and am now back at a private institution. If you had asked me about data in any of my previous positions, I would have looked at you like a deer in head lights. Today, using data to plan and strategize is a weekly if not daily occurrence for me.

I would like to tell you learning how to pull, analyze, and use data came naturally to me, but I would be lying if I did. Numbers were not and still are not my “thing.” I love meeting our students and families, and talking with them about Alvernia: their plans, their future goals, and how we can help them get there.  When I think about these conversations, I often find myself quoting data: “95 percent of Alvernia students receive some type of financial aid, 30 percent of our students attended from out-of-state, our average cost per year has risen less than the national average for private schools,” and so on. Having an understanding of your data and how the numbers impact your students and families is important. I am able to have more substantial conversations with them by responding to their questions and concerns with information that backs up my answers.

Data provide the support I need to maintain, increase, or eliminate scholarships programs. Data have helped me support the development of new scholarship programs as we grow and change our enrollment strategy. Data allow us to verify and confirm our trends, and help us to plan, adapt, and project for the future. Thankfully, when I came to Alvernia, I was not expected to jump right in and be an expert. Alvernia utilizes Scannell & Kurz, Inc. as an enrollment management consultant. During my first year as director, I was mentored by their team. I knew how to get the data, but they helped me understand the data and utilize the information to Alvernia’s advantage.

Each year we provide Scannell & Kurz with a data file. This year I am privileged to work with Jennifer Wick, a consultant with Scannell & Kurz, Inc., who will be presenting this session with me at the Nasfaa conference this year. Over the next few months the S&K team and our staff will be reviewing and analyzing the results of our incoming freshman and transfer classes. Did we achieve the discount rate we wanted? Is our net tuition revenue on budget? Did we enroll the freshman and transfer classes we expected by number? By diversity? Did we meet, exceed, or fall short of our SAT/ACT goals? If we did not meet these goals, we will look at the data as well as external factors to try and identify where and why we fell short. These are all important questions only data can help us answer.

It is critical to balance predictive modeling and our own strategic plan with an analytical examination of our data to be sure the decisions we are making are right for Alvernia. Data evaluation allows us to determine if our packaging policies are working and will enable us to better assess whether changes in our policies are needed for the future to maintain our enrollment and meet our strategic goals.

This will be my fourth year working with Scannell & Kurz in reviewing, analyzing, and evaluating our data. Each year we have been close to or have achieved our enrollment goals and we are on track to exceed our goals for fall 2012. If you had asked me if I would have enjoyed working with data when I began my position I probably would have laughed.  Today, I will tell you it is very satisfying to see how our data have assisted us in predicting and confirming the modeling, packaging, awarding, and reporting we do each year. Our “numbers” are a direct result of the data analysis, good or bad.  While my favorite part of my job is still meeting our students and their families, I know now that without data I would not be able to assist our students in achieving their dreams. Bringing in a class, after all, is not a guessing game; it is a game of numbers.

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