Institutional Research Turns 100-Years Old This Year | Part 8

With near unanimity, American scholars of higher education as a field of study redefined the profession of institutional research as applied research to support decision-making at one particular institution and as a rule did not contribute to generalizable knowledge about higher education or higher education administration. For presidents and provosts in higher education, the fundamental propositions regarding institutional research presented important implications that reinforced the sense that the “research” was a misnomer attached to the burdens of external reporting. In the first respect, the knowledge and understanding of institutional researchers were highly localized and did not contribute to chief executives’ broader understanding of higher education or leadership qualities for administration. In the second respect, institutional researchers’ basic “intelligence” was technical and analytical for the production of “facts and figures” about a single institution. In other words, scholars of higher education in the nation’s university programs have taught students that institutional research offered little of pervasive and lasting significance to college presidencies.

In 2015, the National Association of System Heads (NASH) released its findings from a two-year study of the forty-four public college and university systems in the United States and Puerto Rico. “Faced with an imperative to increase student access and success without diluting quality and in the face of real financial constraints,” the project surveyed the institutional research capacities of local and system offices in order to gauge their abilities “to respond to growing demands.” The report found that institutional research offices within public systems varied considerably in their roles. Simple questions of facts, like data definitions, differed among campuses, limiting “capacity for either system or campus decision makers to compare performance across campuses or systems, to understand the reasons for differences and to use data to drive improvements.”

Contrary to the consensus scholarship that suggested the professional bureaucracies and elaborate profusions of institutional research functions offered the most effective capacities, NASH reached a more regrettable conclusion about the maturity of the profession. Its judgment on the state of institutional research in the nation’s major public colleges and universities is worth quoting extensively:

Against this backdrop of demand for IR [institutional research], the picture that emerges from this study is of a field that is at best unevenly positioned to support change. IR offices are running hard and yet many are still falling behind, deluged by demands for data collection and report writing that blot out time and attention for deeper research, analysis and communication. Many do not have the information they need to get at the performance questions of most interest to them, their boards or public officials, either because it doesn’t exist or because it’s not collected in a way that admits of analysis. The analytic functions in most systems and campuses remain topically stove-piped, with the named “IR” office focused primarily on student and student related research, with reporting and any research in other topical areas (resource use, efficiency and effectiveness, and personnel) handled by the budget and human relations offices. The overall ability of IR offices to use data to look at issues affecting many of the cross-cutting issues of the day—such as the connections between resource use and student success—is nascent at best.

The NASH research, directed independently of prior studies about the nature and function of institutional research, affirmed the worst-case scenario foreseen by Van Vught twenty-five years earlier (Part VII). Consequently, the NASH survey of institutional research in the state systems and institutional offices offers an indictment of the organization of institutional research as defined by the consensus paradigm in higher education scholarship, the official documents of the Association for Institutional Research from the past fifty years, and the high regard for “elaborate profusions” as the most advanced development of institutional research (Volkswein’s schema). The variability in the quality of institutional research functions reflects the recommendation of higher education scholars that institutional research root itself in particular institutions and pursue its practice without regard for contributions to generalizable knowledge. To learn more about higher education scholarship’s role in the consensus paradigm and its failure to advance the practice of institutional research for practitioners and presidencies, see my new history of the profession, Outsourcing Student Success, a history of institutional research and its significance for the future of higher education. Now available on Amazon.

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