Strategies to Shape the Future of Institutional Research Offices

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Institutional Research offices play a key role in the collection and dissemination of information on college campuses. This is an exciting time as institutional research offices expand in both numbers and responsibilities. This time of expansion, we argue, provides institutional research professionals with an opportunity to reflect and plan for the future in their valuable institutional roles.

In our research, we know that institutional research offices:

  • Are increasingly called on to measure student learning outcomes.
  • Provide data to decision makers through a combination of written reports, electronically accessible data, and in-person presentations.
  • Use a variety of nationally administered or independently developed surveys to provide student, faculty, and alumni data.
  • View that security and confidentiality of data as essential.

Perhaps the biggest shift we’ve seen is the role that institutional research offices play in student learning outcomes assessment. Institutional research offices are becoming more focused on measures of the learning process and student learning outcomes, as in the past several years, regional and program accreditation bodies have increasingly focused on outputs reflecting the value added by an educational experience.

So what’s driving this increased focus on processes and outcomes?

The change is driven by multiple forces. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment’s national survey found that this change is largely driven by the accreditation process and institutional desires for self-improvement. In addition to these factors, it is important to consider the role that federal and state governments play, as there are increasingly demanding accountability measures connected to expenditures on student financial aid and the economic importance of higher education. The Spellings Commission criticized the higher education sector for insufficient transparency and accountability regarding student learning and career outcomes, particularly data that could be used by prospective students to compare institutions. This commission suggested value-added measures of student success reported publicly and to students. New government initiatives such as federal college ratings system may increase outside pressure to demonstrate student learning.

What must institutional research offices do to adapt to these changes?

In these changing times, offices must understand the organizational cultures of their institutions, individual departments within it, and academia as a whole. By building relationships and trust with key decision makers, and presenting data in a way that takes institutional culture and the needs of specific stakeholders into account, institutional research professionals will better position themselves to manage the changing demands of the field.

This theme was a frequent topic at the recent Association of Institutional Research (AIR) Forum, which I attended and led a discussion group on the role of alumni surveys in learning outcomes data. The conference theme, Data and Decisions for Higher Education, guided the presentation topics, including many that focused on the influx of data that researchers can access, and effective and beneficial ways to use that information. Specifically, many of the presentations and discussions highlighted the importance of clear explanations as institutional researchers discussed the difficulty in sharing and explaining complicated data with non- institutional research colleagues, who need to understand what the data says without being bogged down or overwhelmed by the intricacies of the data. Key takeaways and questions to ponder from my participation in the conference were:

  • How can you share data-based information without being too data heavy?
  • How can you translate data-heavy information into more conversational form?
  • How can you navigate institutional politics while presenting data findings?

To provide additional insight into pressing questions and topics for Institutional Research offices, we spoke with Tod Massa, the Policy Research & Data Warehousing Director at the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), who presented at the AIR Forum. Below we’ve included some highlights from our conversation with Mr. Massa.


Expert insight

Tod Massa, Policy Research & Data Warehousing Director at the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV)

Hanover Research:What steps would you suggest that the institutional research field as a whole and higher education administrators and IR offices specifically take to advance the field?

Tod Massa: Learn to leverage database tools to build an analytic platform from which one can handle all manner of requests and reporting requirements. We are now long past the days when I encouraged and taught people to use MS Access 2.0 to house snapshot tables and build tools to report data out. The range of available tools, many of which are free or have free versions, are far superior to what we had 20 years ago.

It is not the tools that matter though; it is the approach, the vision that really matters. Using technology to create a vibrant and responsive program of institutional research is the pathway to transforming IR from an office that does IPEDS and state reporting, to one that empowers members of the institutional community through data and information.

Hanover Research: In your work, have you found that there are certain components of advancing the institutional research field that are the most challenging for higher education administrators and higher education administrators and IR offices?

Tod Massa: I’ve seen that many higher education administrators and IR offices are challenged with knowing what to do, beyond IPEDS and the like. Once you realize that Institutional Research is more than IPEDS alone, the space is wide open and the task becomes one of narrowing things down. There are so very many “voluntary” and national projects, that it is easy for “institutional” research to get lost in the mix. There needs to be a strong vision for how data can be best used by the institution.

The most profound issues are, and have been, time and resources. I don’t see this changing. Investing adequate time in data solutions that will not pay off until an unspecified point in the future is always a difficult issue. I believe that time spent on the front end really is an investment that pays off much more than simply just meeting today’s urgent need.

Hanover Research: Do you have any advice for overcoming these challenges?

Tod Massa: Invest time and effort on the front end to create easily repeatable report objects and tools. Understand clearly the goal of the data you are trying to present.

Hanover Research: Are there specific actions that higher education administrators and IR offices can take to play a stronger role in strategic planning?

Tod Massa: Be present. Understand what “strategic” means and understand that most of the conversation needs to stay out of the weeds and details of data definitions and code values.

Create reports/data displays and visualizations that support strategic thinking.

Be able to articulate why the data matter.

Hanover Research: Which issues can be addressed by Institutional Research offices? By state higher education offices? By the federal government?

Tod Massa: The answer is dependent on the creativity and leadership of individuals. State agencies and federal agencies have capabilities to bring datasets together that institutions alone generally cannot do, but institutions can form collaborative efforts to accomplish the same goal. The most important thing that all parties can do is engage in good practices of data governance, stewardship, and development of meaningful and respectful metrics of performance.

Hanover Research: Please share any additional thoughts on ways that the IR field and IR offices can advance the field and its practices.

Tod Massa: Be creative. Institutional Research is made up of more than solely IPEDS and there is so much more to the profession.

While the goal of institutional research is often defined in terms of the institution, it is, in my view, about improving student outcome. Underlying every enrollment measure, degree count, graduation rate, or any other student metric, are individual students whose lives are affected by our work. Remembering that impact in all our work will likely have the greatest impact.

Think about the tools of Big Data and how they can be used in an Institutional Research office of any size institution.

Consider Open Source Software – just remember open source expects a commitment of your time in the community of the project

Study the existing work that has been published. Build up on it. Expand it conceptually. Some of our most important reports have been based on the work of others and expanded to extremes.

From a technical perspective, a rules-based processing model allows one to create a single data engine that can be expanded simply by adding additional rules or filters. This requires thinking critically about you structure data to create products that offer highly-defined areas for action.

Learn to convey to decision-makers and other executives that not everything can be boiled down to single, simple metric from which to take action. Just as we require our students engage in learning and make an effort, the same is often true for anyone that would claim to understand a higher education measurement.


About Tod Massa

Tod Massa started at SCHEV in 2001 with nearly a decade of experience in policy research and analysis, and data management. As Policy Research and Data Warehousing Director, Mr. Massa oversees the development and of the Commonwealth’s postsecondary education data system; the biennial projections of enrollment and demand; and is one of the architects and leaders of the Virginia Longitudinal Data System. His duties also include directing the collection, maintenance, and analysis of research data from all Virginia colleges and universities related to enrollment, graduation, and financial aid. He directs the agency’s information systems activities and coordinates the agency’s relationship with the Virginia Information Technology Agency. Mr. Massa frequently serves on federal technical review panels for the US Department of Education.

Prior to joining the Council staff, Mr. Massa held institutional research leadership positions at two institutions of higher education. From 1991 to 1994, he served as the Institutional Research Coordinator and Academic Policy Analyst at Saint Louis University. Most recently, Mr. Massa served as the Director of Institutional Research and Planning Support at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Prior to joining the staff at Willamette, Mr. Massa served in the U.S. Army and was twice awarded the Department of the Army Certificate of Achievement and the Army Achievement Medal for outstanding service.

Mr. Massa has completed doctoral work in Public Policy Analysis and Planning at Saint Louis University. He earned a Master of Public Administration degree from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio art from Missouri Southern State College.

Mr. Massa has also received the Association for Institutional Research’s “Outstanding Service Award” for service to the association in 2000.


For more information on the role of IR offices in today’s higher education institutions, e-mail for the following reports:

  • Institutional Research Practices for Decision-Making:Hanover Research discusses best practices for institutional research. The first section of the report reviews research on IR data collection and management practices, as well as office structure. The second section profiles five institutions that have been recognized for exemplary IR practices.
  • Integrated Institutional Research and Planning Offices:In the following report, Hanover  discusses the common characteristics of these offices,  with  information  on  typical  office  activities, staff,  and  organization,  and  then profiles several integrated institutional research and planning offices


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