Interview with Natalie Snow

Natalie Snow is the Institutional Research Manager at Kutztown University.

Interview by Michelle Kiec

eAIR: How did you get started in institutional research and what brought you to your current position?

natalie snow 125.jpgI actually started working in IR as happenstance, sort of a “being in the right place at the right time” type of scenario. While pursuing my graduate work at Kutztown University in Student Affairs in Higher Education, I was looking for a summer job. The institutional research statistical assistant was on extended leave; the provost, who knew about my undergraduate background in social sciences and statistics, invited me to accept a position as the new graduate assistant in his office. When the statistical assistant didn’t return, the job was posted, and the rest is history, so to speak. I fell into the perfect career for me and have never looked back.

eAIR: Describe some of the greatest joys of your job.

Most of us in the IR profession like numbers. I love patterns, trends, and correlations. In Fall 2010, the first-time, full-time freshmen cohort headcount was 2010…it just about made my lifetime. Mostly, though, I love the education piece. I enjoy talking through data elements with those less familiar and watching them come to their own “ah-ha” moments when everything clicks. I have never been one to just hand out findings; instead, I supply the facts and the understanding of how data elements fit together and allow the conclusions to surface in conversation. Providing education creates better consumers of information.

eAIR: How would you describe your job functions to faculty and staff outside the IR office? What would they be surprised to learn about your role at the university?

The aspect I always try to stress, especially to faculty, is that I’m here for you. I’m here to help you ensure that your program reaches its fullest potential and that your students walk away with the skills you intended them to learn; to give you feedback from graduates; to help you develop your own set of data mining skills; to work with you and the Office of Assessment to help you assess student learning outcomes. That said, I’m not even sure my husband really knows what I do for a living!

eAIR: Working at a multi-institution state system (PASSHE – Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) requires balancing the reporting needs of the overall system with those of the individual campus. What are some of the challenges of this structure?

I love patterns, trends, and correlations. In Fall 2010, the first-time, full-time freshmen cohort headcount was 2010…it just about made my lifetime.

Time, time, time. I seem to never have enough, which is probably why I’m at my desk most nights and weekends. Approximately 120 annual data submissions are made to our system office. It seems daunting, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. For example, because PASSHE warehouses most of our university data, the system office can (get ready to be jealous) populate most of our IPEDS data on our behalf, which is a HUGE timesaver. It’s certainly not all give and no take. For example, when state legislators ask questions regarding PASSHE, the system office can respond for all 14 universities without our involvement and without taking the time to gather 14 individual responses. The one chink in the system is when we are not informed prior to data releases, yet have to field all the questions regarding the understanding of the data. It takes an open communication system for this to work to its fullest potential.

eAIR: In this era of increased reporting, what are some tactics you use to balance your time?

Everything you read online is true, right? It’s true for my website. We leverage our website to provide the “typical” data elements that campus constituents need. Also, we are a PeopleSoft school and my office relies very heavily on PS Query. Usually when a department requests a data set, it’s something that office intends to use regularly; we write a query and the department runs it on demand, ad infinitum.

eAIR: Recruitment, persistence, and graduation are topics of importance at every institution. Could you share some of your current research in these areas?

Retention, persistence, and graduation are central themes I push in just about every conversation I have these days. Any university neglecting the idea of enrollment management will find itself left in the dust shortly. These themes are central to many of the federal initiatives right now, such as Complete College America . One of the main areas of research we are currently trying to market to our students is the effect of finishing the first year with a GPA under 2.0—not only are those students significantly less likely to graduate, but the work it takes to bring a GPA back to satisfactory is more than most students understand.

eAIR: In what ways have the essential functions of the IR office changed in recent years?

The worst thing you can say when presenting to the President and his or her Cabinet or to the Board is “I don’t know."  It’s your job to know.

I have only been working in IR for eight years, but I have witnessed a monumental shift. Quite simply, that shift is the use of data-driven strategic decision-making. When I first started working in my office, IR was a reporting entity. We responded to IPEDS and U.S. News & World Report, produced fact books, and provided general enrollment updates. Long gone are those days. I am now inherently involved in the decision-making on campus. To my great happiness, “what do the data say” and “do we have data that support this claim” are typical questions asked at all levels of administration. Eight years ago this was simply not the case.

eAIR: What perceptions of IR would you most like to change, and why is this important to the field?

Trust is a tough emotion. I experience a significant amount of mistrust of the data I provide. The data are the data are the data—no two ways about it. I give as much bad news as I give good news. I know from other IR directors that this is not something unique to me or my campus, yet lack of trust is a tough gap to bridge. As part of my non-instructional unit assessment plan, I met with all department chairs in 2011 to educate them about the data elements we use. I feel that education is the best way to build this trust. If everyone can understand the data I present and the proper use of those data, it won’t be a foreign concept they are left to blindly accept.

eAIR: You are currently pursuing a graduate certificate in IR. As a mid-career professional, how has this influenced you and changed your methodology?

The IR certificate is important to me, not as much for the certificate itself, but more for the understanding of the field. Everything I know about IR I learned on the job. I was always concerned that I only had one perspective, one narrow view of what IR is and what we can offer. Enrolling in the Florida State University online certificate program was my way of educating myself about the broader world of institutional research, and in turn, making myself more confident in my opinions, processes, and work output.

eAIR: What advice would you give to aspiring IR professionals?

Part of me wants to say, “put on your big girl pants, because you’re gonna need ‘em!” Instead I will say, “do your homework and be prepared for all questions." The worst thing you can say when presenting to the President and his or her Cabinet or to the Board is “I don’t know."  It’s your job to know.

eAIR: Finally, please share something that is interesting and unique about you.

I wake up every morning and look forward to coming to work. I wish everyone could say that.

Michelle Kiec is Associate Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Kutztown University.