The Two Steps for Using Data to Make Fair Comparisons

When using data to make fair comparisons you must first have the data confirmed for accuracy, the next step is to put metrics in place that give your data context. But while analysis of your educational facilities’ data can present valuable insight—for example, revealing performance trends over time— this should only be a starting place. The next step is to apply your data to making fair comparisons.

Benchmarking against like institutions can provide powerful insight as to how other colleges or universities are performing in the areas that are of most concern to your institution’s stakeholders, your potential student base, faculty and staff. Whether your institution is promising a leading dining experience or modern classrooms, or seeking to gain an edge in sustainability, it’s important to understand how your performance measures up to your peers.

Making fair comparisons depends upon two factors: normalization of the data and selection of a comparable peer group.

The Normalization Process

Normalization is the process of determining the common denominator that makes the most sense for performing an effective comparison. Square footage is a denominator frequently used for comparisons. However, other data might be more relevant, depending on the argument you’re seeking to make. For instance, normalization might be better based on the number of students, full time equivalents, or Btu and other energy data, among other criteria. Grouping data in various ways creates tangible, manageable figures that can be used for effective benchmarking.

You may also find that normalization changes your perception of your campus’ performance, and tells a new story about where improvements are needed. For example, your total energy expenditures might indicate that your campus’ spending is roughly equivalent to what other local institutions are spending. However, normalizing that data to show energy expenditure per gross square foot gives you a standard of comparison that may indicate your spending is actually higher than your peers. This more accurate comparison would present a powerful argument that it’s time to identify areas for energy improvements that have the potential to generate significant cost savings.

Use the Right Peer Group

Effective benchmarking also depends on making comparisons to similar institutions. By comparing your information to educational facilities that are like yours, you’ll gain the most accurate insight into how your campus is performing.

Similar campuses are best for benchmarking purposes, as they demonstrate the most useful and informative benchmarks. But don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you’ll consistently compare your performance to the same group across every metric. There may be a different peer group for every comparison.

You might compare your campus to others that share common physical characteristics, are located in the same region, have a similar financial standing, or have like enrollment targets. The criteria you select will depend upon the information you’re seeking to gain.

For example, if you’re looking to gain insight on the effectiveness of your space utilization and technical complexity, look to schools that are programmatically more like your institution. When making comparisons of energy consumption, carbon emissions or utility expenditures, it would be better to use a local peer group rather than admissions peers that are not local, given that most energy use is driven by climatic conditions.

The bottom line is that you should not take a one-size-fits-all approach when selecting the group of educational facilities against which you compare your institution’s performance. Consider, too, that this group may change over time as your institution meets its goals and evolves future targets.

Put Your Benchmarking to Work

Benchmarking puts your valuable data to work by creating a fuller picture of your institution’s competitive standing in the marketplace. Effective peer benchmarking also supports communication among all stakeholders, as it clearly demonstrates areas where resources can best be allocated to meet campus goals.

Data is a powerful ally in decision-making, but with the context and standardization of benchmarking, you’ll find the Facilities Department can become a much more strategic player in campus planning

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