A Shift in IR

Eric Atchison is an Institutional Research Analyst at Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning. During the recent AIR Forum in Denver, Colorado, Eric presented the Pre-Forum Workshop: Enrollment Forecasting in Excel.

Interview by Lisa Gwaltney

EricAtchison.jpgeAIR: There has been a focus on state system offices’ roles within IR recently, due to the release of the NASH report: Meeting Demands for Improvements in Public System Institutional Research. Can you explain how your role at the system level with the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning (MSIHL) has been affected by this report?

The NASH report has been very helpful in allowing us to better understand the nature of IR within the system level across a broad range of governance structures. Our system office falls directly between the state legislature and the public institutions within our state. The major aim of our office is to achieve system consistency while preserving institutional autonomy. However, the continuous growth of responsibilities and needs for information can make this difficult. Similar to the findings of the NASH report, our focus is moving toward utilizing an analytics framework with a focus on prediction and forecasting. This report has helped us to frame our efforts within a national conversation of how IR is shifting both at the institutional and system levels. We look forward to continuing to see how this dynamic evolves.

eAIR: How has your experience in enrollment forecasting helped the success of Mississippi Public Universities?

There are so many methodological variations and options when building a forecasting model that an individual should consider. One thing I have learned is that there is no singular model for a group of institutions. At the system level, we have seen relatively stable enrollment from year to year, but there have been fluctuations within various sub-groups of our student populations across institutions. The task of accounting for these fluctuations across the entire system and at various levels has required a more holistic view of enrollment and persistence. Coupling these changes with the increased reliance on out-of-state student recruitment and effects of available funding can seem daunting. However, working with the individual institutions has been helpful when forecasting at the system level. The forecasting practices employed at other institutions and systems that I’ve seen on display at the AIR Forum the past few years have also greatly enhanced our ability to fine-tune the methods we utilize to better understand our changing student population patterns.

eAIR: How does your position as an IR Analyst at MSIHL impact your role as an IPEDS coordinator, and vice versa?

As the IR Analyst for the executive office and IPEDS State Coordinator for Mississippi, I have worked to incorporate both of these roles into my daily job duties in order to strengthen the IR operation in our office and the state as a whole. I am consistently asked to provide comparisons of the public institutions in our state to the southern region or nation, as well as to other sectors. As I have worked with each of the keyholders in my state through their submissions of IPEDS data, I have a much broader context for these data as questions arise.

As the IPEDS Coordinator for the State of Mississippi, I have worked to develop strong relationships with the keyholder at each of the 36 institutions within my coordination tree. For example, I send relevant communications regarding recent Technical Review Panel recommendations and provide an annual IPEDS Update web conference to ensure any upcoming changes, clarifications, or policies are communicated in a timely manner. During the two-week time period that I have after the collection is closed at the keyholder level, I work with each institution to ensure the data submitted are in line with prior years and the explanations provided are clear.  

Through the IPEDS resources located on the AIR website and IPEDS workshops, I have continued to grow my skills in utilizing IPEDS data effectively to provide accurate and timely reports to our senior leadership. I believe it is crucial to have a thorough understanding of the tools and techniques for analyzing and interpreting data within the IPEDS Data Center in order to produce useful analyses.

eAIR: Please share a little bit about how volunteering for AIR and other organizations has impacted your professional growth.

I’ve been fortunate to find many opportunities to volunteer with AIR, SAIR, and MAIR that also fit into my professional goals. For AIR, these roles include session facilitator, serving on the Forum Advisory Group, and being a reviewer for the Professional File. Within the regional SAIR group, I have coordinated the facilitators, evaluations, and special interest groups. For my state group, MAIR, I serve as the webmaster and have previously served as a board member-at-large.

My first role as a volunteer for AIR was to serve as a session facilitator. I found an opportunity to lock in a session on my Forum schedule that was of great interest to me and it also gave me an opportunity to get to know the presenter prior to the Forum. Facilitating sessions is a simple process with clear instructions, and I enjoyed making professional connections, as well as continuing the conversations after the Forum ended.

The Forum Advisory Group provided me with opportunities to discuss key aspects of Forum program planning, pilot test technical aspects of the registration process, and serve as a dinner group host during the Forum. One of the key activities on the Forum Advisory Group was to review the outcomes of the first round of Forum session proposal reviews and conduct a secondary review in order to finalize the program. Working with the AIR Forum team and other volunteers has helped me be more comprehensive in the planning and implementation of my own projects.

Serving as a reviewer for the Professional File has also been a great learning experience. Reviewing and providing feedback to authors for their consideration was challenging, but I kept the goal of working to make the articles stronger as a key outcome of the review process. This role not only exposed me to many new ideas and practices within the IR community, but it has helped structure my own writing and thought processes in a more clear and articulate manner for various constituent groups.

Each of these opportunities to volunteer requires varying levels of commitment, but they are manageable and the benefits far outweigh the costs. These opportunities have both strengthened my connections with the various associations in which I participate and provided me with continuous opportunities for professional growth.