Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The Functions of Institutional Research" (2)


Responsibilities for program assessment may be assigned to such a unit by virtue of its experience and expertise with regard to instructional programs and testing.

Interests in institutional and program assessment for purposes of accountability and program involvement, often stimulated by authorities external to the institution, have in some institutions led to the designation of a person or office responsible for leadership and staff support for assessment activities. Assessment of institutional and program effectiveness is a form of institutional research.

An office of student research may exist within the institution's student affairs organization and be responsible for research on campus climates and subcultures, on the characteristics of various services provided students, on residence hall life, and on factors involved in retention and attrition. The student affairs' research office may investigate the development of student attitudes and values. Market research, designed to enhance the congruence between the offerings of the college or university and the needs and expectations of its clientele, may be carried out by this office or by units for institutional research located elsewhere.

An office of financial analysis, analytical studies or administrative research may be located within the organization of the institution's chief officer for business and finance. Studies of business operations and budget and cost analysis are likely to be principal responsibilities of such a unit, and financial planning may be based largely upon the analysis of this institutional research activity.

It is important to recognize that data descriptive of the operation of the college or university are by-products of various institutional operating processes. Data about students are acquired as a result of admissions, registration and associated processes. Budget building and financial transactions result in budget and accounting data. Personnel transactions generate data about employees. The translation of these various items of data into information useful to planners and decision makers requires analysis and, indeeed, is a major activity of many offices of institutional research. The products of this translation and analysis have been referred to as management information.

In colleges and universities of all sizes, computers are used to facilitate the several operating processes and to manage the data involved in these processes. What were at one time called administrative data processing systems are now called management information systems. The applicability of the current designation depends upon the degree to which the computer system, in fact, not only processes the data for operational purposes but also includes capabilities for translating the data into information. These capabilities cannot exist without careful planning and management of the data. Data administration is the function that attempts to insure that the data captured from the operational data systems are meaningful. The knowledge and perspectives of persons responsible for institutional research can make important contributions to the function of data administration.

The relationship between administrative data processing systems and management information and a recognition of the importance of data administration has resulted at some colleges and universities in a close association between the administrative computing organization and the office of institutional research.

In these organizational arrangements, the activity of institutional research includes participation in the preparation of specifications for information systems as well as analysis and dissemination of the information handled by the systems.

Finally, in considering the various ways in which the college organization may incorporate institutional research, the fact that the activity often occurs within the standard organizational units bears emphasis. Information about students may be prepared in the office of admissions where research on admissions criteria may also be conducted. The office of registration and records may prepare reports and analyses of enrollment statistics and trends and may be responsible for enrollment projections. The accounting office prepares the annual report of income and expenditures which is important information for planning and decision making and may undertake analyses of trends and projections of financial variables. The physical plant or the space assignment office may be responsible for maintaining information on buildings and rooms, for analyses of the utilization thereof, for data and studies on facilities maintenance, for research on budding and room accessibility for handicapped persons, for studies related to energy conservation efforts and for other activities which support campus and facility planning. Personnel offices study employee classification systems, salary scales and compensation policies. Any component of the college or university may have a responsibility for institutional research.

The dispersal of institutional research activities which has been multiplied by the widespread use of personal computers and personal computer networks and access to central computer data bases has introduced problems of data comparability. The data analysis of the dean of arts and science may conflict with that of the vice president for academic affairs simply because of differences in definitions and sources of basic data. Some offices of institutional research work with data administrators to develop official definitions and sources of data in order that decision makers can focus attention on the issues and the relevant management information rather than upon conflicting data analyses.

A benefit of an office of institutional research, based upon its in-depth comprehension of institutional data systems, should be its capacity to combine, analyze and interpret data resulting from the several operational activities of the college or university. The office need not be responsible for all varieties of institutional research, but it can serve as a reliable source for comprehensive and authoritative information about the institution.

Associated Responsibilities of an Institutional Research Office

By virtue of its responsibilities for data and information about the college or university, an office of institutional research typically will be assigned responsibilities which need not be considered research on the institution. The following are illustrative.

(to be continued)

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