'Institutional Mythology' vs. Facts

May 21, 2007

At a time that community colleges are under growing pressure to collect and analyze data to improve what they do, their capabilities in institutional research are far behind where they should be, according to a new report.

"Institutional Research and the Culture of Evidence at Community Colleges" is based on a national survey of community college institutional research offices and a smaller set of case studies involving the senior officials at colleges who use institutional research. The research was conducted by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

A majority of community colleges employ at most one institutional researcher, the survey found.

Institutional Research Staffing at Community Colleges

Staffing Level Percentage of Colleges
No staffing at all 3%
Less than 1 FTE 14%
Single director 41%
More than 1.5 FTE researchers 43%

Generally, those colleges with larger IR staffs either had larger enrollments or had offices that had been created prior to 1995, the study found. The need to collect and analyze data, however, is not at all restricted to larger, more established institutions, the report says.

However large the research staff is, there is the question of what it does. A major problem found by the study was that "compliance" work -- supplying requested information to federal and state agencies -- not only takes up a lot of time, but tends to be of limited value. In a comment typical of the case studies, a vice president is quoted saying that "the federal burden alone consumes probably 20-25 percent of the IR office, and that is basically data of no sue to us. The results of it don't inform any of our decision making and are so aggregated that they are not relevant to the discussions that we make on campus."

While government officials seem to dictate how these offices spend their time, faculty members and their work are not major players -- either as the subjects of research or surveys, or as the recipients of information that might help them better reach students. The one exception to this trend is that faculty tend to be involved when institutional researchers are collecting data for accreditation reports or for the development of strategic plans.

The significance of these findings, the report argues, is that colleges stand to benefit from having their own agenda for research and not just viewing its as paper-pushing to satisfy someone in Washington or in a statehouse. The study was financed by Achieving the Dream, in which the Lumina Foundation for Education is supporting efforts by states and community colleges to use data to make improvements in their curriculums and policies so that more students enroll, finish programs and move on to bachelor's programs.

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