Anyone who is not yet convinced about the importance of a strong institutional research office in supporting planning, assessment, and decision-making at colleges and universities today needs only to read Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s 2016 opinion in the Fisher case on race-conscious admissions to understand:
“The University now has at its disposal valuable data about the manner in which different approaches to admissions may foster diversity or instead dilute it. The University must continue to use this data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.”
Our profession has evolved over the past 50 years, from a handful of data wonks focused primarily on responding to external agencies’ fledgling efforts to understand the increasingly complex higher education landscape, to internally focused analytic teams, indispensable to institutional decision-making.
An effective IR office uses its data infrastructure to provide basic institutional information to internal and external audiences, and then builds on that essential foundation, leveraging its expertise and perspective to provide meaningful research and analytics that illuminates what is and isn’t working, the results of new initiatives to support students, general educational outcomes, and future directions that may be promising. To fully support its institution the IR office must go beyond providing reports on topics that faculty and managers are interested in hearing about, and educate about what they ought to know – whether or not it is what they want to hear. This is essential for evidence-based decision-making, differentiating effective institution from the rest.
Many offices at the College receive requests for information from agencies, researchers, peer institutions, and others, and it can be difficult to judge which are worthwhile and which are not. A department chair recently asked me about how to decide which requests require a response. Continue reading IR Triage
I was watching the NFL season-opening game last night. I’m not actually a football fan, but when your husband writes a book connected to football, it’s one of the sacrifices you make. (I have also watched DOTA tournaments with my son, and thought it made about as much sense as professional football. What can I say, I love my guys.) I was struck by the between-play graphics of the players and their stats, and got to wondering (it wasn’t as if the game held my attention), what kinds of pictures and stats would be shown on a highlights reel of Institutional Researchers. (You don’t know, it could happen.) Continue reading The Sport of IR
The College has just submitted its Periodic Review Report (or PRR) to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, our accrediting agency. The PRR is an “interim” report, provided at the midpoint between our decennial self-studies. Though it is not quite the bustle of a self-study – e.g. the bulk of the work is accomplished by one committee that works with others across campus, rather than a multitude of committees; there is no on-site visit from a team of examiners – it is an important accreditation event that takes a great deal of time and work to prepare. Continue reading Rules and Regs
The fall has been whizzing by, and here it is Halloween already. I shouldn’t be surprised, it’s been busier than ever. (I know. I say that every year.) We’ve completed two massive projects involving tracking student enrollment and outcomes over multiple cohorts and years, and another one that was small potatoes after those. The Associate Provost and I have spent a ton of time building on the considerable work of our Middle States Periodic Review Report (PRR) Steering Committee to create a first draft of the report. Our new IR staff members and I have worked together to get up to speed (including the Fall freeze and fall IPEDS reporting). We’ve fielded four five! surveys (so far), and are getting pretty darned good at Qualtrics. (Nothing like troubleshooting to help you learn something.) I’ve gone through the CITI training for IRB and feel incredibly ethical. And of course we’ve dealt with all the usual ad hoc requests and miscellany. But with some of this big stuff behind us, and what is turning out to be a terrific IR team, it’s like the sun coming out. For the first time in a year it seems we’re almost caught up. We freeze employee data tomorrow, so that may not last long.
Having worked in higher education for all of my adult life, I’ve never gotten over that “kid” feeling that September represents a new year. More than January, it offers new beginnings and possibilities. Faculty members come back from their summer activities recharged, and with new ideas and projects. Our students return, literally, in earnest. The quiet, sunny paths become challenging to navigate as people Have to Get Somewhere. My new year’s resolution for this fall is to enjoy these moments. I love helping a first-year student find a building, or hearing a student talk excitedly on their cell phone to a parent about a new class. Or seeing a faculty member help a new colleague understand our customs and practices. (“What’s a WA?!”) When not too busy helping faculty and staff with their new ideas and projects, Institutional Research has a moment to catch its breath before our fall freeze, and watch the excitement. My wish for the College in this new year is peace, love, and understanding.
I am so very happy to share the news that today marks the beginning of a new era for Swarthmore’s Institutional Research Office! We are now fully staffed, in our new configuration. Pamela Borkowski-Valentin is our Data and Reporting Officer, and Jason Martin is our Institutional Research Associate. Continue reading A New Era
Sadly, Thursday’s “Headcount” blog of the Chronicle reports on another institution misrepresenting data that is used in the US News rankings. While there is plenty in the topic to be upset about, I found myself annoyed by this statement:
Nevertheless, replacing hard-and-fast numbers with mere estimates involves a conscious choice, and, it’s fair to assume, an intent to polish the truth.
Certainly there are situations when the intent is to “polish the truth,” and I have no idea whether this was the case at this institution, but I actually think it’s UNfair to assume the intent. Continue reading Data Disconnect
Most IR people are fascinated with numbers, logic, probability, and statistics, which is part of what draws us to our field. We like to poke at data, and think about what they can and cannot tell us about the phenomena they reflect. It’s not surprising that many in the profession think that Nate Silver is somewhat of a god. And so when one of our favorite numbers guru addresses a topic in higher education, our day is made!
Yesterday in his blog, Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver talked about what the changing numbers of college majors do and do not tell us about college programs and whether or not some majors are suffering from an increased emphasis on career-focused programs. He uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics – data provided by Institutional Researchers through our IPEDS reporting – and employs a standard IR approach in offering alternative perspectives on numbers: using a different denominator. No spoilers here, I couldn’t possibly do it justice anyway. Please go read.
As an added bonus, Silver mentions his own undergraduate experience at the University of Chicago and advocates broad, diverse studies. He didn’t explicitly mention “liberal arts education,” but at least a few of his readers’ comments do. Oh well, you can’t have everything!