Friday, March 25, 2011

"The Functions of Institutional Research" (3)


The office of institutional research is likely to have some resonsibility for the institution's responses to national statistical surveys such as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) of the National Center for Education Statistics in the United States or the surveys for Statistics Canada publications in that country. Similarly, the data forms which must be completed for the state or provincial agency with responsibility for higher education may be assigned the institutional research office. The nature of such responsibilities varies. At one extreme, the office simply serves as the point of coordination, receiving the packets of forms, distributing them to other offices where they are completed, then collecting and returning them. At the other extreme, many or all of the data forms may be completed in the office of institutional research itself, drawing upon whatever data files are necessary. Even in the former case, staff in the office are likely to be--and because of their expertise, should be--called upon for assistance in interpreting the standard definitions and instructions of such surveys. They may also be asked to assist in determining how the data in the institution's files should be processed in order to produce the required figures, and in general to insure that the institutional data provided are consistent and accurate.

There are two points to be made about reporting data to state, provincial and federal agencies. First, while there are few immediate rewards for filling out forms, the responsibility should be taken seriously. The data are collected for what may be presumed to be good reasons and should be as sound as the data assembled to serve purposes internal to the institution. The completed forms are products of the institution and, as with any institutional product, should be of high quality. Further, the accuracy of the data may affect perceptions of the credibility of the institution and thereby influence policy decisions important to it.

Secondly, the data reported to the agencies are descriptive of the college or university and the potential value to the institution of the data should not be overlooked. A caution in this regard, however, is that the data are reported in standard categories which may detract from their utility to the institution. Counts of degrees granted for standard subject field categories are less informative to the institution than are counts arrayed by specific institutional academic units and programs. Current fund expenditure amounts displayed in standard expenditure categories are less meaningful internally than are data displayed by the cost centers of the institution. Thus, in capitalizing on the availability of data produced for the external forms, attention needs to be given to displaying the data in categories that are meaningful to the institution.

A related responsibility often assigned to the office of institutional research is that of responding to questionnaires and other non-routine requests for data or information. Almost daily, a college or university receives some request for information from an agency of government, from the publisher of a higher education directory, from a doctoral student or from some other source. Some selectivity with regard to which inquiries merit responses must be exercised and, if it is decided that a response will be given, the response should be prepared carefully for the reasons previously cited. By virtue of its general responsibility for and understanding of data or information on the institution and because of its commitment to consistent data of high quality, it is natural that many or all such inquiries or questionnaires be referred to the office of institutional research. It is at least embarrassing when reports of apparently conflicting information about the college or university, made by different representatives of the institution, are found.

The dispersal of activities of institutional research within the college or university has led to a need for sharing information about the activity. The office of institutional research, by virtue of its responsibilities for and expertise on institutional data and research, may provide the leadership in orienting others to the nature and sources of institutional data and their use. One purpose of the orientation is to encourage consistent use of the official institutional data in order to avoid conflicting data analyses. The other purpose is simply to provide education on the techniques of institutional research and, as appropriate, on research methodology generally.

The data and information managed by the office of institutional research may be used elsewhere in the college or university for purposes other than planning, policy formulation and decision making. For example, the office of public information may seek data to include in press releases or publications about the institution. Similarly, general or specific data may be required to support proposals for external funding for research or other purposes, and the office of institutional research may be asked to serve as the principal source of such data and information.

The office of institutional research often provides the continuing point of contact for the state or provincial agency for higher education on matters relating to institutional data. Institutional research staff may be asked to serve on agency committees where a central concern is institutional data. Persons from institutions provide advice on the development and refinement of state- or provincial-level information systems, on funding formula and the data requirements for them, on studies of special issues in higher education, as well as on the information required for state- or provincial-level strategic or long-range planning. It is appropriate that the expertise of the person assigned to institutional research be drawn upon in such endeavors.

Quite often, by virtue of background and interest, the institutional researcher will keep abreast of the journals and books on postsecondary education and, particularly, the literature on research on postsecondary education. If this person has an academic background or is so inclined for some other reason, he or she may, on occasion, contribute to this literature. While the purposes of institutional research and research on higher education differ, the two forms of research contribute one to the other. The problems, methodology, and results of the general research can be applied and particularized in institutional research, and the findings of institutional research may merit generalization through broader studies. The interest of the institutional researcher in the liberature on higher education often leads to the development of a library of publications maintained by the office of institutional research but available to others, particularly administrators.

Finally, the person responsible for institutional research may be called upon to provide advice on planning, policy and other issues facing the college or university. In one sense, this function is a natural consequence of the institutional research activity. The products of research need to be interpreted and their implications explained. The consequences of alternative courses of action, based upon the research, need to be described and qualified. The person who has done the research should be well qualified to describe its results and implications and to answer questions about it. When the director of institutional research participates in planning, policy formulation and decision-making deliberations at the stage in which considerations other than those raised by the research are brought to bear, it is important to recognize that participation is based upon the director's status as an expert on the institution and higher education rather than upon the director's responsibility as a researcher. The distinction suggested here may be difficult to identify in specific situations. The point is that the values and perspectives of the researcher are not identical to those of the decision maker. There is considerable merit in distinguishing the two roles. Just as the results of the research will seldom be the sole determinant of the decision, so the desired decision cannot be allowed to bias the outcomes of the research.

Characteristics of Effective Institutional Research
It is not within the scope of this monograph to describe or review all the methods and tools of research which are employed in institutional research. Numerous books describe applicable topics, such as descriptive statistics, sampling and statistical inference, questionnaire construction and survey research, experimental and quasi-experimental design, principles of operations research, procedures for program evaluation and methods of qualitative research. Not only is it beyond the range of competencies of any single individual or, even, office of institutional research, to possess expertise in the full array of these methodologies, such expertise is often unnecessary since at many colleges and universities there are qualified researchers on the faculty who can be called upon to advise on or to carry out selected projects.

Some of the fundamental requirements of good research merit mention as they apply to institutional research. The first is that of purpose. Each activity or project of institutional research should be guided by a purpose or set of purposes stated as specifically as possible. Normally the resources available for institutional research are inadequate to justify undertaking projects because "it would be interesting to know ...." or "it might be useful to know ...." (To some degree, this is regrettable because what might be useful to know could turn out to be, in fact, very useful to know.) In view of the applied nature of most institutional research, the guidance given to the research effort by a purpose can be enhanced by including consideration of what actions or decisions might be made on the basis of the results of the research. For example, the initial purpose of a project might be to determine attrition rates for various types of students. This can be done, but when the question becomes "What actions might be taken as a result of knowing the rates?" the nature of the project may change. The fundamental question turns out to be "What are the characteristics of the college or university which lead to attrition and what might be done to change these characteristics?" Similarly, if the question is "What is the faculty-salary cost per student credit hour for the undergraduate courses of each department?" an analysis may provide the answer. However, the data collecetd and their analysis will differ depending upon whether the resulting unit costs will be used to project faculty-salary costs on the basis of projected student-credit-hour data or will be drawn upon in making budget decisions. If it is the later, a more complete analysis may be needed. The linkage between institutional research and planning, policy formulation or decision making is provided by the purposes given to the former by the requirements of the latter.

(to be continued)

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