What is institutional research (IR)? and how can it help IT?

Higher education institutions have many reporting requirements. For example, IPEDS–the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System–is a federally-mandated data collection and reporting program. If your institution accepts federal financial aid, it must report data to IPEDS. If your organizational has an institutional research (IR) unit, that unit almost definitely is responsible for this federal reporting. For some institutions, that’s all IR does. Much like records management, IR can be seen as a necessary evil: it must exist to meet regulatory compliance.

However, other institutions also want IR to help inform the institution’s decision-making, notably in evaluating performance against “peer institutions.” (In the famous 2012 Chronicle article “In Selecting Peers for Comparison’s Sake, Colleges Look Upward,” they show that “peer” doesn’t really mean peer so much as “aspirational.”) Some institutions will keep a list of peer schools and another list of aspirational schools. Or, they may have different lists based on business process (e.g. financial aid) or program (e.g. veterinary medicine). IR tends to be the keepers of these lists, so one thing IR can do to help IT is help identify your peer and aspirational schools.

Institutional research’s closest connection to IT is in business intelligence. IR tends to have a broader perspective of the institution than other units; IR often needs to report summary information on almost all data including HR, Finance, and Financial Aid. (Depending on the institution, Advancement/alumni data may be the exception–Advancement tends to hold their data very close.) IR often also has experience understanding the types of ad-hoc questions people tend to ask about data. IR can help IT understand how data models ought to be created. In many cases, IR can also help validate new reports against whatever tools IR has used in the past to report data. IR tends to be a big advocate for business intelligence as well, because they see how it can make their lives easier.

Sometimes IR units have very technical skills, e.g. experience with SQL or even building their own data stores. I would be remiss not to point out that IR sometimes reports to IT, partly because of this business intelligence tie-in.

Institutional research can also help IT in a very specific, unexpected way. When you create your IT governance groups do whatever you can to include IR. There will come a time where people ask about how IT is funded vs. peer institutions. If IR is at the table, they can help explain why it is difficult to compare IT spend across institutions.

IT spend cannot reasonably be compared without looking at services and service levels, and service levels can vary wildly even between similar services. For example, one school may provide computer labs and another does not. Or both schools might have computer labs but one is staffed and the other is not. How do you compare IT spend when the service expectations are different? IR understands the nuance in comparing institutions, because they have so much experience with it, and they can be a neutral voice to highlight the challenges in comparing services.

If you do want to compare IT to peer institutions, it can be helpful to talk with IR about who should do what types of comparisons. IR will have access to summary IT data such as total spend. IT often has access to EDUCAUSE’s Core Data Survey, and some people use TechQual+. All these instruments, however, will further highlight that IT spend varies wildly based on the IT services on offer and the IT projects underway.