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April 16, 2018 | Institutional data analytics

A Guide to Using IPEDS Data in Higher Education

As the higher education marketplace continues to tighten due to shifting demographic patterns as well as recent financially impactful events, institutions are looking for more and more granular methods to ensure their success. In an effort to meet evolving standards in a new era of institutional effectiveness, colleges and universities continue to embrace data and utilize analytics insights as a means through which previously unexplored insights can be gleaned.


Many institutions are working diligently to develop methods to capture campus-based information, recognizing the value of scouring internal data for ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. However, colleges and universities should also be looking to larger, industry-wide data sets to identify further intelligence which can impact their decision-making processes.


While some of these data sources have existed within higher education for decades, recent technological advancements have made querying, manipulating, and migrating this information into digestible, actionable details far easier and accessible. One such source of data which has been available but cumbersome for institutions to use has been the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (commonly referred to as IPEDS).

What is IPEDS?

IPEDS is a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that provides data and an opportunity for insight into trends in higher education. Every higher education institution in the U.S. that participates in the federal student financial aid program, as outlined in Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, is required to provide a predetermined set of annual details, including enrollments, program completions, graduation rates, faculty and staff, finances, institutional prices, and student financial aid. 


But beyond providing your own data to IPEDS…

How Can IPEDS Data Be Used by Institutions?

Institutions can use IPEDS data in a number of innovative and useful ways. Since reported details are submitted annually and cover a variety of important “institutional health” metrics, such as enrollment, financial aid, completion rates, institutional pricing, faculty and staff details, and more, schools can leverage this information to uncover developing trends, evidence of successful implementations and pivots, and pitfalls to avoid. In one particularly interesting example, at a client’s request, our team at HelioCampus compared institutional graduation rates to instructional expenditures over time to understand the “cost of student success.”


Of course, institutions aren’t the only entities to benefit from IPEDS data. Students and parents, media, government agencies, professional associations, and even Congress can tap into these data sets to make important and meaningful decisions. 


Still, for higher ed leaders, benchmarking your own data against that of peer institutions is a fantastic way to gather the insights needed to better inform decision-making at your institution. Strategy suffers when it relies on isolated datasets that don’t account for the bigger picture within an institution; and the same can be said for decisions made without looking critically at the broader higher ed landscape. IPEDS is a great starting point for benchmarking against other institutions, and can even serve as a stepping stone to more strategic investments down the road—such as joining a dedicated benchmarking consortium of peers who not only share their data, but discuss best practices in solving for the biggest challenges facing higher ed today.


But first, let’s dive deeper into IPEDS and why such an extensive resource is frequently underused by institutions today.

Why Haven’t Institutions Historically Used IPEDS Data Regularly? 

Historically, institutions haven’t used IPEDS data regularly because the data sets have been massive, unwieldy, and difficult to manipulate for the decision making process. While copious amounts of longitudinal data from such a wide-ranging set of participants can possess countless insights and revelations, the computing power to house, generate, and extrapolate said insights has been previously lagging.


As we’ve previously discussed in our article on data visualization best practices, analytics loses its value if it cannot readily produce understandable, actionable insights. For decades, some institutions which may have had the data warehousing resources to contain IPEDS datasets were hard-pressed to also possess the bandwidth to analyze and return key takeaways.

What Tools Allow Institutions to Analyze IPEDS Data Easily?

Over the years, several tools have become available to help people sort through and analyze IPEDS data. College Navigator and College Scorecard were designed to help prospective students research and identify individual institutions based on selected criteria; while net price calculators are commonly available on many institutions’ websites to help students and parents calculate estimated cost of tuition and fees. However, while these tools (of which there are many) do draw on the data available through IPEDS to provide insight for these specific use cases, they are limited in scope - only providing information on one thing at a time, such as a selected school or topic. While these tools work fine for students on a college search, they are much less helpful for higher ed leadership who want to use these datasets more broadly to help inform strategy at their institution.


Seeing this gap, our team at HelioCampus wanted to create a tool that widens that scope and  more easily allows institutions to use IPEDS data: HelioCampus’s IPEDS Explorer.

What is the HelioCampus IPEDS Explorer? 

The HelioCampus IPEDS Explorer is a free resource we provide to the higher education community as part of our commitment to helping institutions harness data to inform their most consequential decisions. The tricky thing with data is that simply having it isn’t enough. You have to be able to take that data and turn it into understandable and actionable insights. That’s where our IPEDS Explorer comes in - it takes that raw data available through IPEDS and turns it into something usable. And once it’s usable, you can use it to benchmark against peer institutions, inform your strategic planning and conversations with leadership, and help you to remain competitive in a consistently evolving landscape.


We’ve always been in the business of making complex data simple, and distilling IPEDS data into functional, digestible information, aligns perfectly with our mission. Our goal with this free tool has always been to expand access to this vital data set, ensuring that anyone with an interest in student success, institutional health, or any other desired interpretation of these tables can dig into previously raw data and produce actionable insights and valuable knowledge.

Take Your IPEDS Insights to the Next Level

IPEDS data provides valuable insights and metrics around institutional health for more than 7,000 colleges and universities. However, the hurdle of how to use that data - and what comes next - is a challenge for today's institutional leaders preventing them from using it to its full potential. Utilizing a tool that helps translate data into digestible information is an opportunity for institutions to leverage to identify areas of improvement and potential risks.


Institutions interested in building upon the insights discovered through our free IPEDS Explorer can work with HelioCampus directly to leverage our data modeling and warehousing expertise, benchmarking strategies, and other higher education-specific analytical offerings to uncover next-level, data-driven decision making.


Is your institution ready to make complex data simple? Let’s talk!


[Updated June 2023. A version of this blog was previously published in April of 2018.]

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