The Power of Higher Education

​Jessica Shedd is Assistant Director in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at The University of Texas System. She reflects on the commonalities, complexities, and frustrations throughout the higher education enterprise, and reveals her new passion for UT Longhorns baseball.
Interview by Leah Ewing Ross
eAIR: Your bachelor’s degree is in psychology and women’s studies. How did you discover a career in institutional research?
JShedd.jpgI was lucky to discover institutional research very early in my career. While an undergraduate, I became interested in gender equity issues in the classroom. This led me to pursue a master’s degree focused on the sociology and psychology of education; the flexibility of my program allowed me to discover a passion for higher education policy and research. As a result, my first job out of graduate school was as a Research Analyst with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in Washington, D.C. At IHEP I worked closely with the National Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity (the Delaware Study). The project exposed me to IR and introduced me to some wonderful friends and colleagues in the field. I was immediately excited by IR, and not long after, joined the IR and assessment team at the University of Maryland. My route to IR may have been more direct than others experienced, but like most people in the field, I didn’t always know that I wanted to have a career in IR.
eAIR: You have worked in a variety of settings, including campuses, associations, the federal government, and now a system office. From the outside, it seems that they are incredibly different environments. Are there any commonalities?
Absolutely. Discovering the similarities is something I really enjoy. First and foremost, the key commonality is the belief in the power of higher education and devotion to student access and success. Though each environment has its unique role and approach to accomplish this goal, at the end of the day, they are all working toward the same end. I’ve been fortunate in that each of the environments in which I’ve worked value data-informed decision-making, and understand the importance of data integrity and what is involved in ensuring that data are reliable. Also, they all share similar frustrations about what existing data still can’t tell us about student success and post-graduation outcomes. There is so much data and information about higher education and students, and yet, there are still some critical questions that can’t be answered.
eAIR: How have your varied experiences shaped your understanding of the overall higher education enterprise?
Most of all, it has given me a great appreciation for the complexities of the higher education system and the environments in which we all operate. Of course, institutions themselves are multifaceted entities, as is the vast U.S. higher education system. But then add to that the intricacies of how things like the federal student aid system and grant programs at the federal and state levels operate, and it quickly becomes a very nuanced and complex enterprise.
eAIR: What excites you most about working for a university system?
I am most excited to learn about all of the institutions that are part of the University of Texas System, and to gain an in-depth understanding of their similarities, differences, and unique contributions to higher education in the State.
There are also exciting research opportunities ahead. For example, through a data sharing agreement with the Texas Workforce Commission, we will be able to continue the work around post-graduation outcomes of UT System graduates and arm students with the information they need to make sound financial decisions about loans and expectations for future earnings, provide decision-makers with critical information about the futures earnings of program graduates, and inform the broader conversation around the use of wage data as an outcomes measure.
In addition, it is an exciting time for the UT System as a new institution — the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — will open in 2015 as a result of the merger of two existing institutions (University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas - Pan American). The Office of Strategic Initiatives has been providing data and analytic support for the myriad discussions and decisions around the formation of this new university, which is a rare opportunity to enjoy.
eAIR: In light of your recent move to Texas and the start of a new position, what advice do you have for others about making professional transitions?
When I entertained the idea of leaving Washington, DC after almost 15 years, it was critical that both the job opportunity and the location were attractive to me. It was a big change professionally (and personally) to leave the DC higher education policy arena and all of the wonderful colleagues and friends I had the pleasure of working with over the years — most recently the IPEDS team at the U.S. Department of Education. It was essential that I felt as comfortable and confident as possible that not only would my new position be an opportunity to learn and grow, but that the location would offer me that as well. I am pleased to say that, though very different from DC, Austin has proven to be a great city with much to offer culturally and artistically. And though I miss my major league baseball (a lifelong Red Sox fan that adopted the Washington Nationals as my National League team), I have quickly become a UT Longhorns baseball fan!