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.
- 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