What’s So Hard About Playing with Numbers?

By Dianna Renz, Director of Planning and Improvement, Western Wyoming Community College

Woo-hoo! Rock on! There it is: the happy dance you do when you’ve completed a major reporting project! This is the feeling of satisfaction you get for a job well done. A competent smirk arrives when you’ve successfully built the query and it spits out the information you need. There’s a definite thrill when you put a number in each and every cell in the reporting template. Take it one step further and you can feel the creative high of building pivot tables to discover the fascinating details of your data. With this information you can uncover important information for your stakeholders, which you present in a colorful chart. This is the lovely part of Institutional Research that fulfills the “OCD” in the heart of—and inspires the artist in the soul of—each IR practitioner. This is what makes it all worthwhile, but this is not the difficult part.

No, the difficult part of the Institutional Research field is not the act of doing it. The hard part of the job is serving multiple masters with competing deadlines and agendas. When VFA, CCA, and NCCBP are all due in the same month, how do you divide your time? And where do you prioritize an internal request from the math department for a longitudinal study of student matriculation and success? What about the feeder institution that keeps begging you for information about students who transfer to your institution? Oh, and don’t forget the ad-hoc request from the state legislature!

What is the use of completing reporting efforts if we cannot use the information returned to us? Delving into the data is the fun part; the challenge is finding the time to conduct this critical exploration. Our office has made a commitment to use the data derived from mandatory reporting for other efforts. Using nationally- or state-normed data for comparison to institutional numbers is an excellent approach to inform strategic action projects, and to assess existing initiatives. Our Assessment of Student Learning Team uses CCSSE data, for example, as a qualitative assessment of student learning gains. Our Building Student Connections Team uses math and English pass rates from NCCBP as a quantitative assessment of retention and completion efforts.

Sharing new approaches at the annual RMAIR conference is an exciting part of the job. Presenting at RMAIR means selecting something you’ve done well to showcase for the greater good. What we don’t share are the messy conversations we have with our internal and statewide colleagues regarding the sticky subjects of common coding, extract validation, data integrity, and faulty BI reporting. Research shows there are as many as 250 different ways to wash the dinner dishes, and there are certainly as many varied approaches to institutional data standards and extraction methodology! As I’ve learned from Wyoming’s effort at common coding, reaching agreement among practitioners is often difficult.

But it’s no wonder that we struggle to reach consensus: Institutional Research is still an uncategorized field. Although I’ve learned that some folks have served in IR for over 30 years, there still does not exist a recognized degree in the field (graduate-level certificates do exist, but institutions are divided on whether the certificate is offered through the School of Education, the School of Psychology, or the School of Business). As a result, the strength of this field is that current practitioners have arrived from a wide variety of backgrounds. I know of individuals with degrees in math, psychology, astrophysics, library science, business, and English, just for example. As IR offices are increasingly connected with other institutional effectiveness efforts like assessment and accreditation, this vast experience serves us well, as quality IR is both a science and an art.

In truth, the work we do is critical for the greater success of higher education and student learning, but this charge is not to be taken lightly. Although the thrill is there, our work is NOT just about filling in the boxes of a reporting template. Using information for the lofty goal of continuous quality improvement is both valid and necessary. We must, then, continue to use all our resources to do the work of finding The Answer, but not creating the answer; serving multiple masters, but remaining true to the spirit of inquiry; and sharing successful approaches while always practicing “virtuous data politics.”*

*This succinct phrase borrowed from a discussion on “the Dark Side of Data” at the 2015 RMAIR conference. If you missed this conversation, you really missed out!

What do you find are the most enjoyable parts of your job as an IR professional versus the most challenging? What is your perspective on the practice of “virtuous data politics?”