In light of the changes and disruptions throughout 2020, what do you anticipate the future of IR to look like?
There is no doubt that we have frequently heard people using superlatives to describe this year and all of the events that unfolded. The adjective “unprecedented” has probably been used an unprecedented number of times in private conversations, on the news, and in narratives of institutional reports. So in light of what we have experienced this year, what will our jobs look like in the coming years? I have reflected on that quite a bit recently and come up with several thoughts about the future of institutional research (IR).
First, our work will continue, whether on or off campus. As a general observation, as long as IR professionals have reliable technology so that we can access our systems, analyze data, prepare reports, and communicate, then we can work just about anywhere—on or off campus. As a result of the pandemic, we have learned what it’s like to work remotely. Remote work, as we have learned, has some advantages institutions may want to consider extending longer-term. Either way, IR professionals will continue to do what we do, regardless of location.
Second, our scope will increase. IR professionals will be asked to provide support for projects and topics that we have not handled before. With the transition to primarily online learning, for example, there is greater need to analyze data from a learning platform. This task might normally be the responsibility of academic affairs or information technology, but with the big-picture vision IR offices typically have, we can be a valuable resource in bringing together other components with the online learning data to provide academic leadership with a holistic picture of student progress in the virtual environment.
This year, many institutions publicized a COVID-19 dashboard of some sort. We have all seen what this is—a collection of tables and charts to summarize the institution’s current and prior tests and positive cases for segments of its population and the total institutional population. Because of HIPAA, it is unlikely that your IR office sees the individual level data, but one of the value-added contributions of institutional research is that we know how to effectively visualize data. I anticipate that, if they have not already done so, COVID-19 coordinators will increasingly partner with IR to ensure that the public facing reports are presented in a manner that is easy-to-understand and looks professional. IR may be called on to prepare lists of students coming from hotspot areas so the campus health clinic can conduct preemptive surveillance testing at the beginning of a new semester, for example.
Overall, something that has been apparent during 2020 is society’s increased reliance on real-time data. This will be expected in higher ed—dynamic data reports with real-time information as of today. Our leadership will lean on IR more than ever before to provide data-informed insights and predictions.
Third, the organizational reporting lines could change. We have known about the looming enrollment cliff. We have faced significant disruption in the traditional admissions-to-enrollment cycle. We have dealt with currently enrolled students choosing to stay home or expressing uncertainty about returning next year. All together, these factors not only impact our IR reporting but, on a broader scale, there is a fiscal impact to operating budgets. Historically, IR offices reside with the provost or president. Because of the critical need to align institutional resources and financial planning with strategic data, administrators expect a close collaboration between IR and the budget office. IR’s reporting lines and organizational structure could potentially move away from the traditional divisions and be housed within finance and administration. Effective resource allocation during challenging times such as what many are facing this year requires relevant, timely analysis of enrollment trends and projections from the IR group. And what better way to ensure an ongoing partnership than to have IR housed in the same division as the financial planning department?
Despite what has happened this year and regardless of what may happen in 2021, our colleagues rely on us to continue doing what we do despite the circumstances. Just as we have always done, we will continue to explore data and provide information for decision support and continuous improvement, and report institutional data to our federal, state, accreditation, and other accountability agencies. There is no guarantee of what the future will look like, but what will not change is the strategic value that IR offers our institutions.