The Impact of COVID-19 on Institutional Research

Released May 2020

Data from a recent survey of the AIR community indicate that working from home and surges in the number of data requests on short timelines are the pandemic’s greatest impacts on IR. Other challenges include realized or anticipated decreases in resources (financial and personnel) and prediction of fall enrollment. 

“It's been full-speed ahead with all typical work. That said, since other areas on campus have been more significantly impacted than IR, the tickets created for data requests have been significantly less in some areas (they have no time to do extra research) and significantly more in other areas (huge enrollment concern, so many custom contact lists needed).”

“My concern, as we contemplate potentially serious budget cuts, is 'out of sight, out of mind,' so I am proactively reaching out to the Provost (my boss) and others to show what we are working on and to offer to help.”

The disruption of the pandemic has prompted IR to collaborate with other units more closely (e.g., admissions), yet has also slowed processes (e.g., access to needed information, inadequate internet speeds, staff reassigned to different or “emergency” roles). Also, the synergy of in-person work is missed by many people because they enjoy the campus environment, and in some cases, communication between units and with external agencies has become less transparent or has subsided altogether. 

Some IR work has been discontinued, such as end of year surveys, graduating student surveys, and national surveys. However, respondents noted different and increased work related to enrollment projections and exploration of the myriad impacts of COVID-19 on institutions overall, and students, faculty, departments, programs, and courses specifically. Several institutions have reduced or changed assessment, survey, and testing schedules, and some have been notified of changes to accreditation and mandatory reporting-related deadlines. 

“Our annual assessment reporting deadline was suspended for 2020 leaving us scrambling to 'look useful'. But we now have more than enough work with other projects and also covid-related university assessments.”

Despite these challenges, the disruptions prompted by the pandemic provide opportunities for IR professionals to support colleagues across their institutions in new ways. Many report that they are helping others understand best practices in online instruction, explore ways to meet physical distancing requirements for a safe return to campus, and navigate concerns about budgets and finances.  

“Some of us will be involved in making longer range planning to prepare for potential interruptions in the near future.”

Most respondents noted that they are not relying on new or alternate sources of external data, but new internal data are being gathered, often through surveys of students and faculty. National reports are referenced for information about similar institutions and programs. Increased data collection activity has raised concerns about the risk of over-surveying stakeholders and overlapping inquiries. 

“One of my units oversees our institutional survey approval process. We have issues with policy compliance in normal times, but COVID 19 has ramped up the number of units creating and administering student surveys without going through the process. This has resulted in poorly designed surveys that are not yielding good data.” 

“Response rates to key surveys required for one secondary accreditation agency have been negatively impacted; we are only getting about half of our usual response rate.”

In the midst of the pandemic, IR continues to support decision making in ways both familiar and new. While remote work has made collaboration more challenging, it has also presented opportunities for IR professionals to provide their institutions with the data and information needed to help craft appropriate responses and be prepared to handle the ongoing challenges expected over the near (and likely distant) future.