Data-driven Education Management

By Laura Hazlett, Chief Financial & Administrative Officer, California College of the Arts

Laura Hazlett, Chief Financial & Administrative Officer, California College of the Arts

The recent increased ability to use data and analytics for decision-making has created remarkable opportunities for organizations to address issues quickly and effectively. Institutions of higher education, in particular, are now seeing the benefits of reporting and analytics provided by new software technologies.

California College of the Arts (CCA) has a budget that is tuition-driven, with 90 to 95 percent of its annual operating income derived from tuition revenue. Because of this, campus leaders pay close attention to student data and trends regarding enrollment. At CCA, we not only track the diversity of the students, their skill sets, enrollment and application criteria, but also the decisions they make in the enrollment process, such as the reason for accepting or not accepting admission.

"It’s important for the CFO to figure out how to achieve the college’s academic goals while maintaining its financial integrity"

The college has been transitioning to Workday, an enterprise platform that we currently use for payroll, HR, finance, and recruiting. We are now in the final phase of implementation, which is the student information piece. Soon all data will be integrated in the same, enterprise system, giving us the ability to monitor student success from the time they apply until after they graduate.

Leveraging New Technologies

With the implementation of Workday financials in 2016, we were able to seamlessly automate several of our Accounts Payable (AP) processes. This automation has allowed a quicker turnaround time and a much better experience for end users, giving them visibility into how they are allocating their resources and spending against their budget. It has also enabled us to see and confirm everything throughout the approval process—saving time involved in manual entries and eliminating human errors. We now have a robust system that can efficiently run any ad-hoc reports at the click of a button, giving us insight into how people are spending money, how quickly vendors are getting paid, and how quickly requests are being processed in the system. Having all that data at our fingertips, while eliminating a paper system, is a good thing for CCA as well as the environment. The ability to perform ad-hoc reporting is extraordinarily helpful to me as a CFO. If I see certain trends or spikes in spending, I can now show the data to our end users and make recommendations to allocate our resources differently. Another significant advantage of utilizing sophisticated and automated software comes down to data collection that can highlight which policies are most regularly broken. These data allow us to identify what is causing a pain point for AP, since anytime a payment or request gets rejected, it disrupts the process and causes issues for end users. The data allow me to step in and say, “This policy or practice isn’t working well for the organization, let’s find a way to adjust it that still protects our financial interests while better serving our constituents.” When you have the flexibility to tweak your policies, you can be more agile in responding to opportunities.

Using Technology to Counter Challenges

Organizations need to utilize data to understand not only where their goals are not being met, but also why there might be issues in achieving or surpassing those goals. For addressing such issues, organizations need to be data-driven, analytical, and surgical in finding the things that can be changed. Now that we have these sophisticated systems, we can harness insights and address key issues. The ability to update and tweak organizational workflows helps to swiftly overcome many process-related issues.

Updating our systems to Workday gave us a head start in addressing our challenges because we are not fighting data out of the gate anymore. I care a lot about how our end users perceive the finance function. Now when someone comes with a problem, I can pull data from the system, determine where the problem is, go to the finance team, and ask them to improve the process efficiency. Since our data are now in a single system, we know it is reliable. Prior to going live with Workday, we spent so much time reconciling data between systems that were not integrated.

The Evolving Role of the CFO in Education

The bigger transformation in education technology will be more focused on learning and delivering education in the classroom. We take care of our facilities to ensure that students have access to everything they need to perform their best. Art and design students utilize large and sophisticated machinery such as CNC routers and 3D printers. The administrative team must understand where the curriculum is headed so that we can accommodate the specific needs of our faculty and students. Our operations and IT teams conduct regular meetings with faculty across our 35 programs to ensure we are not only delivering curricula to the best of our ability but also planning technology in a forward thinking way.

Today the role of CFO has become less about managing day-to-day expenses and more about thinking of creative ways to accommodate curricular and administrative needs as they evolve. It’s important for the CFO to figure out how to achieve the college’s academic goals while maintaining its financial integrity. The CFO’s role has become more complex and porous because there are greater opportunities for influence and partnership. I oversee a broad portfolio that includes HR, IT, finance, operations, planning, and real estate. By having insight into everything that touches the administrative side of the organization, I can influence what transpires across the entire college. Such a large portfolio deepens my connection to the enterprise and, I think, enables me to perform better. And having reliable, accessible, and timely data has greatly improved my ability to make informed decisions and initiate changes to benefit the entire institution.