For my first regular entry, I thought it appropriate to talk a bit about why Institutional Research (IR) is important. USAO allocates a non-negligible portion of its limited resources towards our activities (that you, by the way), so it is important that we provide something of value. Moreover, it is important for those paying the bills (students, parents, Oklahoma and United States taxpayers) to know what it is they are purchasing. Rather than focus on the specific tasks and reports, they are legion and are generally of interest to a very specific (small) audience, I wish to speak about our efforts with a bit more breadth.
Like many organizations, USAO gathers and retains a tremendous amount of information in its various databases. We have records on every student that has ever enrolled and on many who have applied (I am not sure how far back they go, hence the “many”). We have information about every faculty, staff and administrator, as well as data on every penny that flows into and out of the business office. Only those brave souls over at USAO’s Information Services could tell us just how much data we maintain, but I can’t shake the image of Scrooge McDuck ™ diving head-first into a gargantuan vault filled with zeros and ones.
So what do we do with all this data, other than keep our servers warm? Primarily, we use this data to generate compulsory reporting to the State of Oklahoma and The United States governments. These two stakeholders provide a substantial portion of our budgets and they rightfully want to know that our taxpayer’s hard-earned money is put to good use. Both of these government entities collect information about a broad range of topics including student retention, graduation rates, remediation rates, costs of attendance and faculty credentials to name a few. Really, this is a very small list. If anyone wants a more comprehensive list, the federal government provides a few data clearinghouses where every variable they collect can be viewed by the general public (see Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System or the National Center for Education Statistics).
In addition to these, the Office of IR also prepares reports for various external bodies wanting information about USAO. These are not compulsory in the sense that those from the government are, but are still required as a part of our open records responsibilities. Not only to we publish the Common Data Set, but we also respond to requests from a number of publications (US News and World Report, Kiplinger’s, and Princeton Review among others). Each of these publications represents our commitment to share critical information with our stakeholders through whichever media outlet they prefer.
Perhaps the second most frequent function of IR, at least as it is practiced at this institution, is to provide data informing some of the more important administrative decisions. Administrators must constantly make judgments and decisions about the present and future of USAO and its various work units. Those decisions can range from setting tuition and fee levels, creating or discontinuing specific university programs, student satisfaction with various aspects of the university, or even the most appropriate channels for communicating with current and prospective students. Rather than rely on memory or “gut feelings” about what has happened and what is likely to happen, administrators can use reliable and objective figures to make the best decisions possible.
The final major function of IR is to engage in any research efforts that may inform the student experience at USAO. The difference between this type of research and others featured in this article can be subtle at first. The critical difference between them is the exploratory nature of this type of research, and is likely why I am so fond of it. Rather than inform known issues, exploratory research seeks to identify phenomenon that were previously not considered. We use the vast amounts of data at our disposal to answer questions that might be important to ask about education in general (or at USAO specifically), but that nobody has yet thought to ask. For instance, we already know that previous academic success is a moderately useful predictor of future academic success (I use “moderate” in the statistical sense, see Cohen, 1988). What other factors might contribute or detract from student success? We can rely on other scholars to identify and communicate their findings, or we can lead the way in finding interesting relationships that could reveal new and more effective ways to insure student success.