Journeys to Institutional Research: Unexpected Paths

Amanda Yale is Associate Provost for Enrollment Services and Kevin McCarthy is a Reporting Analyst in the Office of Institutional Research, both at Slippery Rock University. Amanda introduced Kevin to the field when she recognized that his interests and talents would be a good fit for IR.  

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross

eAIR: How did you “fall” into IR-related work?

Amanda.jpgAmanda: I have worked in higher education for 30 years, 18 of which were in first-year experience and students in transition programs. In the late 1990s, our accrediting agency told us to place high priority on addressing declines in enrollment, retention, and graduation—it was clear that we had to manage enrollment by design, and not leave it to chance. The new provost at that time was charged with managing enrollment more effectively. I moved from a tenured associate professor position to lead the newly created division of enrollment services. 

Slippery Rock has realized significant success as a result of our focus on enrollment management, culminating in achievement of an 81% retention rate, which we have maintained for the past four years. We are bringing meaning to data and are moving beyond transactional analyses to thoughtful, purposeful action with university-wide commitment. Enrollment management utilizes a business intelligence system, and we work with the IR office to ensure that we are in synch when it comes to data. All of this led me to AIR six years ago.  

Kevin: My academic background is business and economics. After college, I spent two years in the private sector before accepting a position in admissions at Slippery Rock. The admissions office reports to Amanda, and when I developed interest in Kevin.jpggraduate school, I discussed my goals with her. She thought I would be well-suited for IR and invited me to attend the 2011 AIR Forum in Toronto. I realize now that IR is the perfect merger of my academic and professional interests, but until Amanda introduced me to this field, I did not realize that it was a career option.  

In admissions, I worked with reporting tools as part of the new student information system. The university had conducted extensive research to understand the “what” and “why” of enrollment management, but needed to further explore the “why” and focus on the “what if”—predictive analytics. A position opening in IR provided an opportunity to broaden the office to truly be active with analytics. I am now full-time in IR and have the opportunity to deliver reports to campus leaders that help them make optimal decisions. 

"The culture of performance requires a vision with relevant goals that are wrapped around institutional effectiveness. Every campus is different, but you have to break down the silos." --Amanda

eAIR: How do you use data and IR for student success?  

Amanda: In the early 2000s, we learned a great deal as we created systems to inform and assist our work with institutional effectiveness. Essentially, we built what we needed and flew on the results. Our business intelligence system is great, and in the past few years we have integrated a new, fully comprehensive student information system. We now need to improve our system and create an environment in which information is easily transferable within a user-friendly interface. If we leverage data from multiple systems, we have better analytics and can improve decision making overall. Also, we are experiencing a demographic decline, so we have to be strategic and strategically tactical to maintain our retention rates and engage in effective recruitment efforts.  

Kevin: In this age of performance-based funding, we need to build data cultures in secondary areas. We have to more comprehensibly link information from a variety of departments to optimize retention and maximize the student experience. 

eAIR: How do you demonstrate success in this arena? 

Amanda: The culture of performance requires a vision with relevant goals that are wrapped around institutional effectiveness. Every campus is different, but you have to break down the silos. Certain collaborations are critical to success, such as relationships between enrollment management, IR, and IT. You cannot build a campus culture in a purely functional world; a common vision must be created. If you identify your questions, you can identify the how, why, and what; once the questions are answered, you know what decisions you can make.  

There are myths about IR in a state system—that IR only creates reports that are sent to the state capital. However, IR and enrollment management can work together to understand the environment and solve problems. You can show success with low-hanging fruit and use that to develop advocacy. From there, you must set priorities because the questions that need to be answered are endless. Furthermore, this culture can easily disappear if it’s not nurtured. You need to continually educate and inform so that everyone on campus is well-versed in the priorities and goals. 

eAIR: Are there intentional ways to help others “fall into” IR? 

Amanda: Leaders in IR and enrollment management need to reach out to new professionals with potential, introduce them to IR, and foster their professional development. The creation of successive leadership is our responsibility. 

Kevin: Having a mentor on campus is great. Also, at the AIR Forum, I put myself out there and talked with lots of people. Most people I met were excited and eager to share their love of IR with me. You have to raise your hand and say, “I’m here and I’d like to be involved.” AIR helps me expand my perspective beyond Slippery Rock and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.   

eAIR: If you could have dinner with any higher education celebrity, who would it be, and why? 

Amanda: I would invite the newer staff in enrollment management, IR, and IT to sit at the dinner table with individuals whose mentorship and writing have influenced me and my values, including Peter Ewell, John Gardner, George Kuh, and Maya Angelou. 

Kevin: I would grab drinks with Mary Ann Coughlin. Her research and projects are of great interest to me, she’s a wonderful instructor of statistics, and her personality fills the room.