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Rapid Insight: Higher Education case study

Southern Adventist University Creates Advanced Revenue Attribution Report Using Rapid Insight

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Southern Adventist University Exterior
  • Identifies degrees, departments, and faculty who generate positive revenue

  • Allows for targeted, data-informed (but mission-driven) decision-making

  • Equips Chairs and Deans with an in-depth, cross-cutting understanding of revenue

In this case study, learn how Southern Adventist University implemented a revenue-attribution report that identified which degrees, departments, and faculty members generate revenue for the institution. The report will enable Department Chairs and other college Administrators to gain a nuanced, cross-cutting understanding of where to make adjustments and streamline the college’s offerings to serve its financial, educational, and mission-based goals.

The Benefits of Revenue Attribution Reporting

Southern Adventist University (SAU) is a co-educational institution located in Collegedale, TN. With a student population greater than 2,500, 171 faculty members, 64 majors, 9 graduate degrees, and a variety of unique programs, SAU is constantly evaluating which programs achieve the institution’s mission and priorities most effectively.

Doug Frood, Southern Adventist University

Like all Universities, revenue is a persistent concern. SAU knew that improving their understanding of which programs and degrees generate positive revenue would be an immense advantage. This information would help them to prioritize funding and attention on efforts that lead to results. It would equip them to make informed changes to departments and degrees that did not provide as much value. For several years, the university saw revenue attribution reporting as a priority. In 2019, thanks to the work of Doug Frood and Ryan Harrell, that work truly got underway.

Launching the Initiative

Ryan Harrell - Southern Adventist University

Ryan Harrell: Southern Adventist University

 Doug Frood, the Executive Director of Budgeting and Data Analysis, handles the Cabinet’s budget and performs analysis for the CFO and Academic Vice President. Primarily, he ensures that stakeholders receive reliable, actionable information on which to base decisions. SAU hired Ryan Harrell in 2019 as a full-time data analyst for Enrollment Management. Frood and Harrell partnered to find a solution that would provide Chairs and Deans with the information needed to understand revenue attribution at the university.

In June 2019, Frood and Harrell attended an Academic Impressions conference session focused on Academic Cost Models to learn more about structuring their revenue attribution report. Harrel was so inspired by what he learned that he began sketching out the model while still at the conference.

Rapid Insight’s products were already in use at Southern Adventist. The school used Construct, Rapid Insight’s data preparation tool, to organize and clean data from its many sources. SAU also used Predict, Rapid Insight’s predictive modeling tool, for enrollment and retention modeling. Since the tool was already part of SAU’s arsenal and worked well for those applications, Harrell considered it a perfect fit for building out the new revenue attribution model.

Developing the Report

Harrell’s first step was to allocate student income to credit hours and aggregate the information in various ways. The goal was to get the data into as granular a format as possible, down to the level of individual instructors and students, so that as many variables as possible could be assessed. Next, Harrell worked with Frood to incorporate cost assessment into the report. Using Construct to connect to their Student Information and Finance systems, they attributed costs to individual instructors and courses. Construct allowed them to calculate cost and revenue in two separate workflows, then merge them into a single complete data set with the necessary levels of granularity.

The result was a detailed net revenue analysis incorporating over 7,000 lines of data. The report can be used to view revenue by course, department, and degree programs. From there, it can be aggregated to highlight the impact that each program has on other programs. For example, the courses a typical student in the Music program takes outside their major might be key to a separate program’s revenue generation. In this way, the report allows SAU to see the interactions and influence programs have on one another. The granularity of the report allows Harrell and Frood to drill down into complex factors. It will enable Chairs and Deans to make decisions with a full understanding of potential ramifications in mind.

Informing a Mission with Data

As a faith-based institution, all decisions at Southern Adventist University serve a greater mission. Thus, SAU embodies a data-informed (rather than data-driven) approach to decision-making. The data provide useful information on which to base decisions, but the larger priority is serving the mission. Ultimately, Harrell notes, this is no different from how a Liberal Arts school would prioritize its literature programs even if those programs weren’t its largest revenue generators. 

Southern Adventist University Students

This is where the model’s capacity to cross-reference variables truly pays off. As an example: perhaps the Religious Education program itself may not generate significant revenue on its own, but students within it frequently take courses key to supporting the Psychology department that do contribute to the University’s bottom line. That knowledge is critical to making a truly informed decision about the value that students who major in Religious Education bring to the school. Beyond that, the school sees intrinsic value in its Religious Education program, so there are two reasons to ensure that it remains an option for students. 

However, perhaps there are individual line items that can be assessed with the analysis to make prudent fiscal decisions. Does it make sense for the Music department to have separate focuses for piano and organ, or might they be combined? The revenue attribution model is flexible enough to allow for these data-informed but mission-driven decisions.

The Advantages of Rapid Insight

Frood notes that the cost savings attributed to the approach they took are substantial. “There are outside consulting firms that could do this, but they cost forty to fifty thousand dollars, and we would have had to clean the data for them anyways.” Beyond the strict cost savings, the real value of an in-house solution is in what they’ve learned through the process of working so extensively with their data. They’re able to see connections and relationships in their data that would not have been apparent had they outsourced the project. This prompts questions that Frood and Harrell may not have known to ask had they worked with a consultant to investigate a narrow range of specific inquiries.

“Consultants can never understand your institution as well as you do yourself,” said Harrell. “Their models may be effective, but they won’t be as precise to the institution as a model you build yourself. By nature, consultants’ models must apply to a wide swath of users and institutions. Our model is tailored to our specific needs.”

Another advantage of Rapid Insight’s products is their ease of use. While Harrell has a background in programming, many users at the institution have less technical training. Nonetheless, the node-based workflow builder in Rapid Insight’s Construct allows Harrell to efficiently complete his work and then share it without conducting extensive training. Harrell showed Frood and several other administrators how to use the software. They see the portability of their projects in Construct as a significant plus. It increases collaboration and creativity across departments and levels at the institution.

Harrell and Frood note that the increased accessibility of their data created a culture shift at SAU. The level of data access increased exponentially over the past few years. Using Rapid Insight, they developed templates and analyses that allowed a data-informed methodology for decision-making to spread in departments like Finance and Enrollment Management. SAU now works with data comprehensively and robustly, rather than only consulting data to answer individual questions. With an increased interest in data comes a greater volume of requests for Harrell and Frood. They use Rapid Insight to efficiently address those requests by adapting their library of existing workflows to each new application.

A student at Southern Adventist University

Looking to the Future

In the future, Harrell and Frood plan to share dashboards with the Chairs of multiple departments to help them rapidly make decisions based on up-to-date data. The academic cost model will also be improved as time goes on to better serve the needs of the Chairs and Deans who use it. In addition, they plan to refine the retention prediction model and are currently using Construct to complete IPEDS reports. Construct will also play a key role in data retrieval and analytics for an upcoming regional accreditation cycle.

With the flexibility and control afforded by Rapid Insight’s software, Harrell and Frood have a limitless ability to improve operations at Southern Adventist University, and that’s exactly what they plan to do.