Have you ever seen a large corn field or tried to find your way out of a corn maze? With so much corn, it is often difficult to identify a reference point to find your way out.
Much like a large field where you can easily get lost in rows and rows of corn, college administrators can also get lost in the massive rows and columns of data. They often rely on the IR office to help them through this cumbersome maze and make sense of it all. IR is a bit like a corn farmer.
First, the farmer counts the amount of corn that comes out of the field. He will often use the annual count to compare to previous years or to report the annual harvest to the various state and federal agricultural agencies. He will also compare the yield of corn harvested to the number of seeds planted.
In IR, we do the same thing. We count enrollment, yield rates to those who applied, and we compare these counts from year to year. We also report our counts to both the relevant federal and state agencies. The IR office will even dig a little deeper and determine how much yield we are getting out of the various types of students, much like the farmer determines the yield in varieties of corn or if the south field produced more corn than the north field.
But, as we know, the farmer should go beyond the mere counting and dissecting the amount of corn that is produced. Here, the science of agriculture kicks in as the farmer engages in the deeper questions of how, why, and who. This practice is similar to the IR practitioner and a seminal component to the functions of IR.
For instance, why was our yield higher this year than last? How exactly do scholarships and incentive programs improve our crop and when should these be administered? While the farmer will ask why the south field produced more corn than the north field, we may ask why the senior class is strengthening but the freshman class is falling behind.
The farmer often raises corn not just for food and feed. His harvest will be used as additives to everything from petroleum products to lipstick. Within the IR office we can also go a step further and help the administration shift paradigms to go beyond the traditional student. Here, we can use our research capabilities to discover the full potential of how higher education can be fully utilized by society.
So while the farmer is concerned about corn, the IR practitioner is concerned about data. Both are important jobs. However, new technology has created satellite systems and robotic tractors on the farming side as well as analytical software and artificial intelligence on the IR side. Can technology be utilized to make these two roles obsolete? I hope not. For as much as technology advances, the farmer and the IR professional still have to be in the driver’s seat. Without IR, the maze of data is daunting to those who dare enter.
Therefore, as the farmer can unlock the full potential of a cornfield, so can the IR office unlock the full potential of data. And much like the farmer, the IR practitioner has to be multi-skilled, multi-talented, and maybe just a little bit lucky. But in observing the outcomes of all the work we do, we can look back on a job well done and know that our work is important.
Andrew L. Luna, Ph.D is Executive Director of Decision Support and Institutional Research at Austin Peay State University and is also a speaker.