The Institutional Research Revolution in Higher Ed: Top Five Trends Shaping the Transformation

    

The rise of data analytics. Government efforts to introduce accountability stats for colleges and universities. Students’ increased voice in institutions of higher education. These are a few of the forces revolutionizing the field of institutional research. This shift is already underway, but what is leading it? Experts point to these five developing trends as informing and shaping the transformation.

1) Moving From IQ to EQ

Thirty years ago, job postings for institutional research positions emphasized technical and analytic skills, befitting the role’s focus at the time on collecting and crunching numbers. But pure data analysis is no longer enough. To succeed today, says Randy L. Swing, former executive director for the Association for Institutional Research, “people will need new kinds of skills,” 1 including listening, collaboration, understanding and navigating academic and administrative politics, and being able to situate data within context. Part of this new “soft skill set” means getting out from behind your computer and talking to different stakeholders, according to Richard Howard, an institutional-effectiveness consultant who formerly directed offices at four public universities. Howard believes that institutional research must involve understanding how an institution works and how faculty members do their jobs. “You need to be willing to be out talking to people to learn as much as you can,” 2 Howard said. William E. Knight, assistant provost for institutional effectiveness at Ball State University, suggests some interesting approaches to beefing up one’s EQ, including reading a book on the history of the institution or “sitting in the back of faculty-senate meetings and not saying anything, just to find out what things people are struggling with.” 3

2) Training Staff to Use Data Effectively

Today’s institutional research professionals also need to be willing and able to teach data literacy across the campus – be it brick-or-mortar, or online. Just because faculty and staff have more data at their fingertips than ever before, that doesn’t mean they know how to filter the numbers, how to interpret them, or even what questions to ask of their data. This is a concept widely understood at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), where the leadership began working to expand both analytics access and training back in 2011. “Departments evolve at varying paces,” says UMUC president Javier Miyares, “and institutional inertia is … one of the greatest hurdles.” 4 Miyares and UMUC’s analytics team knew that getting buy-in from departmental staff was critical to both leveraging data across the institution and eliminating data “silos.” To do this, they needed to engage with the university community in a new way, facilitating meaningful, ongoing conversations with faculty and non-faculty staff alike. The team moved into a new role as data consultants, conducting outreach to reduce the complexity of the data and present it to faculty and department heads in an easily understood and consumable fashion. Democratizing data in this manner led to multiple benefits for the university, including increased enrollments, improved retention rates, and reduced marketing and recruitment expenses.

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1 Swing, R. and Ewing Ross, L. (2018). A New Vision for Institutional Research. [online] Airweb.org. Available at: https://www.airweb.org/Resources/ImprovingAndTransformingPostsecondaryEducation/Documents/A-New-Vision-for-Institutional-Research.pdf.
2 Williams June, A. (2017). Higher Ed’s Data Experts Face a Crossroads. [online] The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Ed-s-Data-Experts/241079.
3 Williams June, A. (2017). Higher Ed’s Data Experts Face a Crossroads. [online] The Chronicle of Higher Education. Available at: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Ed-s-Data-Experts/241079.
4 Javier, M. and Catalano, D. (2016). Institutional Analytics Is Hard Work: A Five-Year Journey. [online] EDUCAUSE Review. Available at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/8/institutional-analytics-is-hard-work-a-five-year-journey

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