In Improving Outcomes, Institutional Researchers Can Be an Untapped Resource

June 20, 2017

College presidents may recognize that data can improve the quality of their decision-making process, but they often appear to be disconnected from the very resource that would help them do so: their campus’s institutional-research office.

A newly released survey, conducted by the American Council on Education, shows that college presidents see metrics related to student success — retention rates, graduation rates, and minority-student outcomes — as the most legitimate measures of an institution's performance.

But just 12 percent of presidents said that using data to inform decision making was a future area of importance for them. It's a stance that the survey’s authors suggest is "a potential disconnect" with the institutional-research offices, whose data-crunching and analysis skills could help guide colleges toward their goals, including improving student success.

"Perhaps more presidents need to awaken to the importance of data-informed decision making at the institutional level," a report on the survey said.

Examples of data-driven decision-making success in higher education often generate significant conversation. For instance, Georgia State University has attracted widespread attention for using data to help it focus the awarding of small but targeted "completion grants" to students on the brink of dropping out. And at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, data informs the support the institution offers to its most vulnerable students.

Institutional-research professionals have expressed concern that they are often disconnected from key decision makers. Many researchers are still earnestly making the case for data-driven decision making at a time when the higher education landscape is rapidly changing. This spring, when members of the Association for Institutional Research gathered for the group's annual conference, the topic of using data to inform decision making was a popular one for speakers and presenters.

Among the sessions: Data-Driven Strategies to Improve Low-Income Student Success, Data Democratization: Creating a Culture of Data-Informed Decision Making and A Data-Driven Approach to Understanding and Improving Student Persistence.

Institutional researchers themselves will need to help foster the shift. Said Jan Botha, of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, to peers at the AIR forum,

"Institutional researchers have to be focused on the big picture and detail-oriented."

Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.