IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Data Helps University of North Texas Increase Enrollment

While other universities have suffered steep enrollment declines since COVID-19, the University of North Texas has experienced continual enrollment growth through the help of data analytics and a platform from SAS.

A large stone sign on the ground on grass that reads "University of North Texas."
According to a recent study from Forbes magazine, total higher education enrollment has declined by almost 7.5 percent since 2019. With universities across the U.S. still struggling to bring enrollment back up to pre-pandemic levels, the University of North Texas turned to data analytics in order to buck those trends and form new strategies focused on increasing student enrollment and retention rates to all-time highs.

Using a system called UNT Insights — a data platform built with software from the data analytics company SAS that’s designed to bring together data from across institutions to gain key insights through metrics related to admissions, budgeting, financial aid, grades, enrollment, retention and graduation rates — the university recently reported a 16 percent increase in enrollment since 2018, as well as a 5.5 percent jump in enrollment in 2022 alone, according to a recent news release.

According to Jason Simon, associate vice president for data analytics and institutional research at University of North Texas, the university first recognized the need to harness data analytics for decision-making in 2015. He said that once it had built a culture of trust in data governance and analytics, the university was able to use the SAS tool effectively for institutional planning to boost enrollment and student retention.

“We put together a team of individuals from across campus to hold a mirror up to ourselves and assess where our strengths and our weaknesses were, and then begin a process of thinking about what needed to evolve in order to fundamentally reposition the institution,” he said. “No tool or technology is ever going to be a direct correlation to institutional outcomes, but moving to a more advanced maturity level in terms of data availability, data application, data-informed decision-making and data-based policy does certainly help move the needle. What we saw was a maturation of how our leaders, our advisers and our frontline student services staff used data.”

Simon said the university’s emphasis on data analytics has also helped to speed up degree attainment for first-time higher ed students and undergraduate transfer students. For example, the university reported a drop from an average of 4.6 to 4.2 years to earn a degree, and a three-year graduation rate jump from about 2 to 12 percent from 2012 to 2022. What’s more, full-time undergraduate transfer students saw degree attainment times drop by almost half a year, in addition to an increase in two-year graduation rates from 14 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2022.

Simon said the university’s Data, Analytics, and Institutional Research (DAIR) group, which manages the university’s data system, has had to field fewer data requests as instructional, administrative and IT staff have become more comfortable mining data themselves. Noting that the team previously processed between 1,400 and 1,600 manual requests, he said, these requests have decreased by about 1,000 per year — representing hundreds of staff hours and about $52,000 in staff cost savings that can be used elsewhere for meeting university goals. He added that the use of analytics has also helped increase efficiencies across departments, reducing costs by more than $1 million.

While about 3,000 universities globally now use SAS higher ed analytics software and other similar tools to increase student performance, manage finances and conduct academic research, Simon singled out UNT for its data governance processes.

He noted that the university was also recently selected as one of seven higher ed institutions that participated in an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help show other institutions how to expand and harness their analytics and use data — both from within the university and from other schools — to address key strengths and weaknesses identified in various metrics.

“The institution is getting national recognition in this regard, but that’s mostly because we have found a way to look beyond just the tool,” he said. “Institutions that are investing in the expertise, tools and culture needed to advance their approaches to using data — and not just data that happened in the past, but using data strategically to predict and analyze, and focus on the future — are the ones that have had success.

“You’re seeing this [growing] gap emerge between institutions that are on the forefront, like the University of North Texas, where we have fully integrated an analytic perspective into our decision-making process, and others that are having to be reactive to what’s happening around them in terms of their enrollment.”

According to the news release, UNT officials previously reported that the university had “fundamental issues with data management and data governance” before the current model, which siloed data in various departments and made enterprise analytics more difficult and daunting.

Simon said the university has spent years improving data literacy and training staff across campus to leverage data. He added that the user-friendly SAS application is now used by more than 1,200 people on campus.

“Every campus has a different culture, and so analytic leaders need to be able to look inward in their own institutions and in their own agencies and think about how their culture either helps or hinders their ability to be successful,” he said. “We’ve been able to leverage the tools and think about how we can apply them into the actual day-to-day lives of the faculty and staff who work here at the institution to make a real difference.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.