Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The Functions of Institutional Research" (1)

This series of blog entries are taken from the monograph The Functions of Institutional Research (2nd edition) by Joe L. Saupe from the Association for Institutional Research. Copyright© 1990 by the Association for Institutional Research.

You can find the full monograph here.
The Nature and Purpose of Institutional Research

Institutional research is research conducted within an institution of higher education to provide information which supports institutional planning, policy formation and decision making. The institution may be a single campus, a multi-campus system, a state or provincial system or an even larger grouping of colleges and universities. Although the activity of institutional research is commonly associated with the individual campus, it also is carried out within higher education systems to serve the governance responsibilities which reside there.

Institutional research can be distinguished from research on postsecondary education which has as its purpose the advancement of knowledge about and practice in postsecondary education generally. The subject of institutional research is the individual college, university, or system. While institutional research can involve data and analyses which contribute to wider knowledge about how colleges and individuals function, this type of result generally is not sought for its own sake.

Activities of institutional research are frequently undertaken in association with specific planning, policy, or decision situations. Information to answer specific questions is desired. How many sections of a specific course should be offered? By what amount should tuition rates be increased to produce a target amount of tuition income? Is attrition a problem at our institution? Are our faculty salaries competitive with those paid by peer institutions? Are the outcomes of our degree programs what the stated purposes of the programs suggest they should be? Institutional research designed to answer such questions is a form of applied research.

The assembling of the quantitative and qualitative information for use in periodic or ad hoc reviews of programs or organizational units illustrates the form of institutional research having characteristics of evaluation.
Information on cost and productivity underlies judgements about efficiency. Information on other characteristics of programs and units and on outcomes leads to judgements about effectiveness or quality. Information on program purposes, on programs offered by other institutions, on the labor market and on potential demand produce judgements about the need for academic programs. Judgements of these types lead to decisions about program initiation, continuation, and improvement.

Occasionally institutional research leads to general information about the college or university and its environment and provides a comprehensive view of the institution which may inform planning, policy formulation, and decision making of a variety of types. Information of this type may arise as a by-product of institutional research on some specific question. For example, a study of student flow undertaken to guide enrollment projections may reveal that large numbers of juniors and seniors entered the institution as transfer students. This incidental finding may have a variety of implications. Similarly, institutional research may be undertaken on a general topic and not be guided by a specific problem or question. The expectation is that the findings will be generally informative. For example, surveys of alumni and of members of the community in which the institution is located may reveal attitudes and impressions about the institution. These forms of institutional research have characteristics of basic research.

Some activities of institutional research may, intentionally or incidentally, identify situations within the institution which are causes for concern. A by-product of the routine tabulation of enrollment data by program or a special analysis of enrollment data designed to isolate patterns of retention and attrition may reveal that attrition appears to be a special problem for selected programs. Some form of administrative or academic attention, perhaps accompanied by additional study, may be suggested by such results. Thus, problem identification may be a result of institutional research.

Some projects of institutional research may be called action research, because the researcher and client work closely throughout the problem definition, research design, data collection, analysis, interpretation and implementation phases of the activity. The institutional researcher who is asked to serve on or as a resource to a task force charged with studying some matter and with making recommendations thereon can work closely with the task force and may then be able to follow up after the task force has reported to insure the recommendations of the task force are correctly understood and acted upon. Such an arrangement provides an excellent opportunity for institutional research to have impact.

Policy analysis is another phrase which applies to some forms of institutional research. Deliberations on matters of policy are often, or often should be, accompanied by analysis and that analysis is institutional research. Deliberations on admissions policies may require analysis of the impacts of policy changes on different segments of the potential student population as well as on the size and composition of the student body.

Clearly, the term research, as used here, has a broad meaning. Information about the college or university results from analyses of quantitative data and qualitative assessments. Tabular displays of counts of fall-term students and of annual expenditures illustrate the simplest form of analysis. Comparisons of current with prior-year totals of such data provide a similar, still simple, form of analysis which conveys information. Cost analyses, space utilization analyses and teaching-load analyses are conventional types of institutional research. Statistical techniques ranging from the calculations of averages and percentages to the applications of complex multivariate procedures are included. A variety of prior-year, current and projected institutional data, along with quantitative representations of policy variables and assumptions, may be used to simulate institutional functioning in future years using techniques of mathematical modeling. Simulation is a form of analysis by which implications of alternative courses of action are assessed. The measurement of student outcomes and the examination of the measures in the context of student and institutional goals and quantitative and qualitative characteristics of academic programs is another form of analysis. The performance of administrative and support programs may be similarly analyzed.

Institutional research, like other types of research, should be objective, systematic and thorough. The outcomes of the research should be as free as possible from the influence of personal philosophy, political considerations or desired results. The information provided by institutional research is combined with academic and professional judgement in planning and other decision-making processes. Almost never is the final decision based solely on the findings of the research, nor should it be. Considerations of institutional philosophy and tradition, of priorities and of the environment in which the institution exists may be as important as the findings of the research in determining the course of action to be followed. For example, a study may suggest a technique of recruiting students which has considerable potential for increasing enrollment. The factors of judgement may lead to a rejection of the proposal that the techniques be used or to a major modification in it. Nonetheless, the research has served its purpose by bringing information to the decision-making arena and stimulating reflection about recruitment and the various factors involved in this institutional activity. The research might not have served this purpose if it had been of questionable validity or had been guided by some preconceived notion of what result was desired or expected.

This is not to say that institutional research should be undertaken or carried out in ignorance of the nature of the institution and the forces which guide its operation. An investigation of forms of "hard-sell" recruiting, for example, would not be useful in colleges and universities where this type of activity would be inconsistent with strongly held institutional values. The design and the presentation and interpretation of the findings of institutional research can be guided by the nature of the institution and its environment and the usefulness of the results thereby enhanced.

Institutional research, then, is an essential ingredient of sound college or university governance. It should occur throughout the institution wherever any sort of planning occurs, any type of policy issue is considered and any decision about some aspect of the institution is proposed. Institutional research has been described as an attitude of commitment to the institution's purpose in society and to the value of critical appraisal and careful investigation. Institutional governance is informed and rational to the degree that such an attitude pervades the institution.

The Place of Institutional Research in the Organization

Institutional Research is carried out in the individual academic and administrative units of the college or university in support of the information needs, planning and decision-making responsibilities which reside at the unit level. At some colleges and universities, a conscious decision had been made that each unit in central administration will be responsible for institutional research relating to the activities of that unit. There may be no formally identified offices for institutional research in these institutions, but this does not mean that the activity is absent. Rather, it is dispersed and carried out by persons who may have principal responsibilities other than institutional research. Economy and in-depth knowledge of the matters studied may be points in favor of such arrangements. Problems of dispersed institutional research are duplication, a lack of research expertise in some or many institutional domains, an inability to deal with issues which cross organizational boundaries, and an absence of an institution-wide view in the research activities.

At other colleges and universities, offices of institutional resarch have been established in recognition of the fact that the activity requires specialized expertise and full-time attention. In some cases, the title Office of Institutional Research is given to an organizational unit which supports functions such as planning and budgeting wherever these occur within the institution. Elsewhere, the connection of institutional research with the activities of planning or budgeting has resulted in organizational units titled Office of Institutional Research and Planning, Office of Institutional Research and Budgetintg or Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Budgeting. Names such as Office of Institutional Analysis and Office of Institutional Studies also are used.

Various administrative units may be charged with some responsibility for institutional research. The placement of the unit within the administrative organization determines the nature of the unit's responsibilities or type of institutional research it undertakes. In some colleges and universities, institutional research reports to the chief executive officer. The specific charges to such offices vary widely, but this organizational arrangement recognizes the function as one of central importance and so broad that to be effective it must be placed near the top. Placement at the top may indicate that institutional research on academic, administrative, financial and auxiliary matters are all important and cannot effectively be carried out in isolation from one another. This arrangement also recognizes that institutional research supports planning and resource allocation which crosses organizational boundaries.

Another model is that of an office of institutional research and planning which is responsible to a vice president for planning. Such an organization recognizes that information developed from research underlies institutional planning. Although the name of the activity may not include the designation "institutional research" because the principal responsibility is planning, the information development phase of the activity is institutional research nonetheless.

The office of institutional research may be a responsibility of the institution's chief academic officer in which case research and information on academic purposes, programs, program outcomes, policy and personnel will support academic planning, budgeting for academic units and other responsibilities of that officer.
Such a unit may be responsible for the institution's program evaluation and assessment activities. In this regard it may conduct surveys of graduates and former students. It may be responsible for needs assessment studies designed to guide the development of new programs. The unit also will respond to requests for assistance from deans, chairpersons, and faculty committees.

In many colleges and universities a unit charged with leading efforts to improve instruction and academic programs has been established. Institutional research supports the activities of such a unit. Research on teaching methods and instructional media may be carried out there. Programs of student ratings of instruction are often housed in such units and are based upon research. Questions about testing and grading lead to research on these topics. Courses and curricula, and the interaction of students therewith, are analyzed and evaluated. Data underlying periodic reviews of programs and academic units are assembled. Evaluations of special services (for example, learning centers created to serve marginal or disadvantaged students) are carried out.

(to be continued)

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