Institutional research is a broad category of work done at schools, colleges and universities to inform campus decision-making and planning in areas such as admissions, financial aid, curriculum, enrollment management, staffing, student life, finance, facilities, athletics, and alumni relations.
Institutional researchers collect, analyze, report, and warehouse quantitative and qualitative data about their institution's students, faculty, staff, curriculum, course offerings, and learning outcomes. They are involved in collecting and reporting information to government bodies (for example, in the USA, the United States Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), to the public (e.g., Common Data Set, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities's University-College Accountability Network), and various college guide publishers (e.g., U.S. News & World Report and College Board). On occasion, institutional researchers share data with one another to compare their own practices and outcomes against those of similar institutions. Organizations that facilitate this sort of cooperation include the Association of American Universities Data Exchange, the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, and the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Institutional research is the source of much of the information provided to regional and national accreditation bodies to document how institutions fulfill the standards for accreditation.. In the British Isles, The UK and Ireland Institutional Research Network (HEIR) carries out similar functions.
In addition to reporting, institutional researchers often engage in data analysis, ranging from simply testing whether differences in reported data are statistically significant to developing and using causal and predictive statistical models. Such models are often used in support of assessment and strategic enrollment management.
More information about institutional research can be found at the Association for Institutional Research (AIR). There are also a number of regional and state associations of institutional researchers in the United States and around the world. Links to sites related to institutional research are available from AIR.
Becoming an Institutional Researcher
Due to the need to provide data to the federal government and other entities, nearly every post-secondary institution has offices that fulfill the institutional research function. At some colleges and universities this function is centralized in a single office of institutional research, while at others it is more de-centralized. There is no single academic degree that qualifies one to be an institutional researcher, but suggested strengths include a knowledge of statistics, research methods (e.g., survey research and focus groups), and computer-based reporting tools (e.g., SPSS, SAS, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Excel, and SQL). Other important assets are strong written and oral communications skills, attention to detail, and knowledge about how institutions of higher education operate. Several American universities offer graduate certificate programs in institutional research, including Ball State University, Florida State University, Humboldt State University, North Dakota State University, Penn State University, Indiana University, University of Missouri, and University of Illinois.