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Gone are the days when colleges funded initiatives based mostly on theories or perceived needs. These days, community college leaders want data to help them make decisions. And it’s the job of institutional research (IR) officers to provide that information.
“Campuses used to throw solutions at problems and hope one worked, but no one can afford to do that now,” said Randy Swing, executive director of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR). Now, it’s about colleges “disaggregating the data and targeting solutions.”
With tighter budgets and more demand for accountability—especially in areas related to improving student success—institutional leaders want to see hard data before they’ll support initiatives, said Trudy Bers, executive director of research, curriculum and planning at Oakton Community College (OCC) in Illinois.
It’s not just college leaders who want hard facts. Accrediting agencies, state and federal agencies, and funders are all asking for more data. Just this week the U.S. Education Department said it will include more information on students in IPEDS, adding data on part-time students and students who previously attended colleges. Other national initiatives, such as the American Association of Community Colleges’ Voluntary Framework of Accountability, Achieving the Dream (ATD) and Complete College America all collect mounds of data to help officials make decisions.
More demands, fewer resources
At many community colleges, the demand for data is stretching IR departments.
“Everyday there’s a deadline,” said Vanessa Morest, dean of institutional effectiveness at Norwalk Community College (Connecticut), who noted that the pressure on researchers has become “unrelenting.”
Many community colleges can’t afford to hire a team of institutional researchers and instead rely on one-person departments. A 2007 Community College Research Center report Morest co-authored found that more than half of all colleges have one—or less—full-time IR employee.
“It’s hard to invest in IR,” Morest said. “It’s not always clear how IR people are supporting their institutions.”
For rural colleges, where the job pool might not be deep, the best option is often to hire someone without the skills and invest in training, according to Swing.
Leslie Russell, the director of institutional research at Phillips Community College (Arkansas), calls herself a “one-man show.” Russell came from the world of computer technology to a position that seemed foreign to her.
“I knew how to get the data, but I didn’t really understand some of the whys,” she said. “I didn’t know how to make sense of the data or interpret it.”
Grow your own IR
To get up to speed on the basics, Russell turned to outside professional development opportunities. AIR’s Data and Decisions Academy helped her to not only understand her job, but to do it more efficiently.
Russell took six foundational courses online through the academy. She learned about surveys and assessments, data warehouses and how to use functions of Microsoft Office to present data. Russell noted that she can now “rock a pivot table.”
A mentor was on call to answer not only course-related questions but questions about the specific work Russell was doing at her job.
The academy is designed for people like Russell—new-to-the-job institutional researchers in need of fundamental skills. There’s no need for travel or high-cost software, and each course requires only about 25 hours of engagement, so people can “get in and get the stuff they need to build a base,” said Christopher Coogan, director of the academy.
Nearly 200 people have completed at least two courses through the academy—which is funded by Lumina Foundation—since it launched in 2010.
Using other resources
For Brian Hayden, director of institutional research at the Community College of Beaver County (Pennsylvania), said the academy was a “really good option,” because it involved no travel and was self-paced. He took two courses to catch up on some of the basics.
Hayden came to his position nearly three years ago, when the college was halfway through an ATD grant. The culture of the college was shifting to become more data-focused.
“The president did a good job of working with faculty to help them understand and appreciate data,” Hayden said.
Hayden has seen increased reporting demand, particularly from the Pennsylvania Information Management System. He has the support of a colleague in IT, but also relies on a network of IR professionals throughout the state to help when he gets stuck.
“Institutional researchers are remarkably generous individuals. We share, we don’t compete,” said Bers, who has been working in IR at OCC since 1981.
Getting support from within
While outside resources such as those offered through AIR are helping, institutional researchers need more support from their colleges, said Morest.
“There needs to be recognition that a one-person IR office is inadequate for the volume of work required,” she said.
More staff would allow for the redistribution of tasks and would relieve some of the burden. Morest added that colleges also need to invest in better data systems, such as a dashboard system, to get data out to the college more efficiently.
Ideally, though, there should be “more convergence among measures from external agencies,” Morest said. Each stakeholder requires different data, and “every form that different groups add on adds burden,” she said.
Despite burdens, institutional researchers continue to bring “dedication and passion” to their jobs, said AIR’s Coogan.
“At the end of the day, it really is about helping more students find the path to a college degree or certificate,” he said.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges