Why “data-driven” is over-rated and admission professionals under-rated

By Ray Diffley posted 01-31-2017 17:11


Folks…listen up.  Every time I hear “data-driven” …especially data-driven decision-making in our profession, I cringe a bit.  Allow me to explain.

Are we really driven by data? I typed in an address in my GPS the other day and (like I often do) blindly followed the directions to my son’s hockey game.  But as I drove taking turns and more turns, something didn’t feel right.  I sort of knew where the rink was, but it didn’t feel like we were going the right way. Turns out, I was right.  We went off track and we were late.  Points off for dad for being, literally, data driven.  You might say I had the wrong search engine in my car's GPS, (FYI I was driving a Prius) or had the wrong algorithm, but bottom line is I discarded my judgement and discretion, and I paid for it.  Silly example, I know, but if you’ve ever gone on a GPS adventure, you can relate.

If we, as admission professionals, are driven by data, especially around decision making, I wonder if robots should just start making decisions for us right now?  Wait, don’t spread that idea! And before I am misquoted or misunderstood (out of context) I hereby propose that we, admission professionals, not ignore data, but use the term data-guided.  I had fun with colleagues the other day saying admission professionals should trademark this term for our profession, because while working with people, kids in fact, judgement & discretion are key whereas over-reliance on data should be acknowledged as possible. 

I argue that there is a sliding scale here.  The less professional the user-of-data (in any profession I suppose) the more they have to fall back on the data to make decisions. Some call that the cover your assets (CYA) decision-making least that’s the translation of “CYA” to my 10-year-old.  I argue that the more professional (and thereby confident…. through education, training, and experience) the admission person, the more they are able to be simply guided by data.  It’s not as if this isn’t somewhat intuitive, but honestly, I found myself comfortably using the term data-driven decision making, until now. 

With the exciting, but daunting, responsibility of “directing” AISAP’s Center for Admission & Enrollment Management Leadership, I have to question some of the terms and labels we use or have used. We lead and direct this profession, our schools, and the families considering our schools.  I hope we all want it to be a profession where (human) discretion, judgment, context and yes, even some intuition, help us make decisions. So, the next time you wonder where the heck your GPS is taking you, think of it as a guidance positioning system and please do the same in your admission work when it comes to data.   In terms of guidance, remember that AISAP champions the professionals who lead!

About Ray Diffley
Director of AISAP's Center for Admission
and Enrollment Management Leadership





02-24-2017 11:19

A belated thanks to Rachael, Nancy and Jay...if I can get you all to stop and comment in your insanely busy worlds, I know we're headed in the right direction!

02-07-2017 21:20

As someone who has been doing admission for a long time, its easy for me to agree with you, Ray. Experience helps tremendously in putting data in perspective. You're able to worry less, and patiently reflect & evaluate more. The trickier question is, I think, how does one train or develop that intuition and patience without the benefit of 20+ years in the field? 

I have many thoughts about this :), but I'll mention just one that I think can help--diversity. Diversity of interests and experiences in in the members of an admission team is one of the best ways to support and enhance the more limited perspectives we have on our own, especially if we are newbees in the profession. Some of the best admission decisions can come out of conflicting ideas on an admission committee, because disparate views cause us to consider essential truths about a school's mission and it's ability to support students. If everyone, however, has a similar take on things or (even worse) always agrees the Director (or follows the GPS blindly--to use your analogy), you are less likely to think critically. The same goes for our ability to analyze our data and trends. Too often Director's feel the responsibility of reviewing, analyzing and deciding on their own rather than using the perspectives of their team to tease out and enhance what they have before them.

I believe diversity matters in helping us to do our best work and encourage our best thinking. It can be harder, and far less comfortable, but completely worth it in the end.

As I experience the political jockeying US from overseas, and the ways that our disparate political perspectives have encouraged us to think about the essential values of the US  constitution, I'm reminded about how important disparate views were in creating that document to begin with.

Thanks, Ray, for getting me thinking today!

02-07-2017 15:51

Ray - Thanks for raising this issue and our awareness around the importance of accurate terminology.  I agree with Jay (who agrees with you) that data guided should be the new addition to our admission lexicon.  Important not just for admission professionals to keep in mind but for heads of school and boards of trustees as well.  The instincts and experience of admission professionals who are immersed in the trends in their areas should be considered invaluable tools along with all the data.Thanks, Ray

02-07-2017 14:20

YES, Ray!  Data guided  is the perfect term to describe what we do this time of year in our admission committee meetings, which compliments all of the other factors, including things like professional wisdom and intuition!