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Volume 24 Number 2
Edited by Susan Wolfe
Educational institutions offer community psychologists a range of career opportunities beyond teaching and doing scholarly research. Most have research and evaluation or institutional research offices that collect and analyze data focused on improving the educational and other services they provide. In the Winter 2014 issue, we introduced three contributors but were only able to include one submission. In this issue, Jamie DeLeeuw shares information about her work as a Coordinator of Institutional Research, Evaluation and Assessment for Monroe County Community College. And, Cathy Crosby-Currie and Christine Zimmerman share their perspectives on working in institutional research at St. Lawrence University.
Written by Jamie DeLeeuw, Monroe County Community College
Institutional research (IR) offices track institutional progress, assist with accreditation, shape college policy, and promote student success through data analysis and the dissemination of findings to stakeholders. I discovered the world of IR upon earning my doctorate in community psychology and realizing few tenure-track academic positions were available. Throughout graduate school at Wichita State University and during my nine-month stint as a visiting professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University, teaching preparation always seemed to quell my research time; I was eager to experience a position that was completely focused on community research.
In recent years the U.S. Department of Education’s (2006) and the Higher Learning Commission’s (2013) emphasis on accountability of postsecondary institutions appears to have produced a steady supply of positions in IR. Although job advertisements often state a preference for candidates with experience in IR, my graduate training in research methods and self-learning about the field made me a viable candidate. I was hired two years ago by Monroe County Community College (MCCC) as their Coordinator of Research, Evaluation, & Assessment, to develop an IR office of one. The interview process included providing a presentation on three innovative ways to assess student learning, and a data analysis task.
Institutional researchers come from all sorts of backgrounds; many have a bachelor's or master's degree, although some have doctorates. Similar to discussions regarding standardization of community psychology programs, IR practitioners debate whether a set curriculum would be beneficial to IR students or restrict program diversity. Community psychologists are ideal for IR positions given the values inherent in our discipline, training in research methods and statistics, and understanding of cultural and interpersonal differences in communication.
In the time that I have worked in IR, four of my larger projects include 1) identifying, developing, and benchmarking core indicators of institutional effectiveness (e.g. retention rate, graduation rate, work placement rate) that align with MCCC’s strategic plan, 2) developing a time series model to predict enrollment in order to assist with tuition-setting, 3) general education assessment, and 4) the evaluation of our new council model of shared governance. My IR web page includes some of my projects, which you may be interested in exploring [https://www.monroeccc.edu/institutionalresearch/index.htm]. One aspect of my job that I particularly enjoy is that the majority of my time is spent creating surveys and analyzing data for internal purposes, although I am also required to submit data for state and federal reports. Some IR offices are primarily focused on reporting, which can be frustrating if measures do not adequately represent student success, yet are tied to state or federal money.
Additional perks of my position are, the knowledge that I am contributing to the community college’s pro-social mission, being paid to advance my understanding of current statistical techniques, professional development funding that can be used to attend conferences and workshops, a diversity of work tasks, and furthering my knowledge of decision-making processes in higher education. I enjoy consulting with individuals from various departments and divisions and developing strategies to address their research questions, as well as the level of appreciation that the campus community shows for my work.
Given that the institutional data I analyze typically comes from the Ellucian/Colleague database management system, rather than from studies I personally design and implement, I devote a fair amount of time to cleaning and manipulating large data sets to make the format amenable to testing the research question(s). While many IR experts have knowledge of SQL and extract their own data, our data processing team builds queries in Entrinsik Informer which I run, download in Excel, and then reprogram as needed within SPSS and Excel. Working with large data sets requires patience and tenacity because of the level of detail involved. As with community research in general, initiatives based on findings tend to take time to develop and administer.
At community colleges one interacts regularly with both administrators and faculty and learns to navigate and integrate the two areas. To stay involved in teaching, I recently started serving as an adjunct professor of psychology at MCCC. Interestingly, some institutions allow their administrators to shift to faculty status after a certain number of years if they desire summers off. My current salary is similar to that of an associate professor of psychology at a doctoral-granting four-year college/university (College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, 2013) and while I am expected to work a standard 40 hour work week, 12 months a year, I have a generous amount of vacation time compared to the average full-time worker (Ray, Sanes, & Schmitt, 2013).
For more information about the field of IR, see Association of Institutional Research (AIR) [http://www.airweb.org/pages/default.aspx]. If you are interested in learning about online professional development courses designed to augment your current education, see AIR’s Data Decisions Academy [https://www.airweb.org/EducationAndEvents/OnlineLearning/Academy/Pages/default.aspx]. Each state usually has its own professional organization as well; MCCC belongs to Michigan Association for Institutional Research [http://www.miair.org/] and Michigan Community College Collaborative for Accountability, Research, and Effectiveness. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions regarding my experience in IR.
College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. (2013). Faculty in higher education salary survey: For the 2012-2013 academic year. Retrieved from http://www.cupahr.org/surveys/fhe4.aspx.
Higher Learning Commission (2013). The criteria for accreditation. Chicago, IL.
Ray, R., Sanes, M., & Schmitt, J. (2013). No-vacation nation revisited. Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research. Retrieved from http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/no-vacation-nation-2013.
U.S. Department of Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U.S. higher education. Washington, D.C.
Written by Catherine A. Crosby-Currie and Christine Zimmerman, St. Lawrence University
When our collaboration began, Cathy didn’t know what a “Director of Institutional Research” did, and Christine didn’t know what a “community” psychologist was. Fifteen years, four grant-funded studies, and countless assessment and evaluation projects later, we have come to realize that these professions fit together quite well. Both share the values of system-level assessment and evaluation and a multivariate and multi-method research approach. Additionally, the flexibility of institutional research (IR) allows the core values of our field to influence one’s work. As such, an educational background in community psychology can prepare one well for a career in IR, and IR can provide community psychologists with a potential career niche.
With increased reporting requirements, public demands for accountability, and emphasis on student learning outcomes, institutional research offices have expanded significantly over the past two decades. According to a survey of the Association of Institutional Research in 2008, the size of the profession nearly doubled since 1990. Most institutions now have free-standing IR offices with more than one IR professional.
Responsibilities of an IR Office do vary significantly. AIR survey results classified the job functions into 6 main categories of responsibilities: general reporting; technology and database administration; academic affairs research and analysis; administration and finance analysis; strategic planning and enrollment management studies; and assessment, effectiveness, evaluation and accountability studies. In smaller offices that perform broader IR functions, the director or assistant director is frequently involved in all of these functions; the staff at large institutions might be more specialized. Thus, a community psychologist needs to pay particular attention to the job description.
The key to success in IR is not the specific degree one holds but rather the skills one brings to the job, and those skills are ones that community psychology training provides. Christine’s educational training, for example, is in geography and regional planning; another local IR director has a degree in public policy. According to the AIR survey, nearly one out of three IR professionals holds a social sciences degree. Forty-five percent of institutional researchers hold a master’s degree, but 25% of all IR professionals and 45% of all directors now hold a doctoral or first-professional degree. Notably, several of the prominent institutional researchers on the national stage, such as those leading the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), hold doctoral degrees in subfields of psychology specifically.
Rather than a specific degree, institutional researchers must have a background in research design, specifically evaluation and survey design, and multivariate analysis. IR requires an ability to conceptualize questions in comprehensive ways and an ability to turn goals and objectives into research questions. Institutional researchers may use quantitative or qualitative methodology or a combination of both. Because the questions being asked often involve issues of student development, a community psychologist’s content background—i.e., an understanding of human behavior and mental processes—might be particularly valuable.
Just as job responsibilities and functions vary, the amount of autonomy the director has, the types of project he or she becomes involved with, and to whom the director reports will vary a great deal from institution to institution. Someone with a community psychology background coming to this field needs to be cognizant of those differences. For example, some positions in IR offices are “data analyst” or “data coordinator” positions, indicating, for example, an emphasis in database management and statistical reporting, while others might be more involved with survey research, planning, and assessment. Also reporting structures and office name might indicate areas of responsibility. For example, IR positions reporting to a Vice President of Admissions or Enrollment Management might focus primarily on market research, financial aid analysis, enrollment projections and retention. Offices reporting to the Academic Dean or Provost might be more involved in questions about the academic enterprise. Offices might have titles such as “Institutional Research,” “Institutional Effectiveness,” “Research and Planning” or “Assessment,” or a combination of these. Offices of “Institutional Research and Assessment” are probably more involved in program evaluation than another office and a potentially good fit for a community psychologist.
Offices of IR do come in lots of shapes and sizes, but the director of institutional research typically has power and freedom to shape and define the direction of the institutional research office at that institution. By definition, IR embraces the ecological perspective of community psychology, because IR is interested in how institutional-level variables relate to the learning outcomes of students, and community psychologists can employ the core values of the field in their work. When beginning new projects or directions, the director can empower members of the community to define problems and issues. Christine spends considerable energy consulting with constituencies about what they want and want they need from a particular survey or a special research project. These constituencies and stakeholders are sometimes involved on the research team, for example, developing and conducting focus groups. The director also has the power to attend to unheard voices and ensure respect for diversity. Some institutional researchers, such as Christine, are involved in creating second-order not just conducting the research that forms a basis for system-level interventions or evaluating its impacts. The authors spent many years together on a primary prevention initiative to reduce undergraduate students’ high-risk alcohol use. As part of this initiative, we helped design and implement primary prevention programs as well as evaluate their impacts.
Two points to note, however. First, one is unlikely to step into a directorship directly out of graduate school but to begin as an assistant or associate director; director positions typically require three to five years of experience. Second, an assistant or associate director position might still have some power to define the direction of research. As discussed above, the job description is most relevant to determining whether the job would or would not be a good fit for a community psychologist.
Fifteen years ago, we would not have predicted that we would be writing an article about careers for community psychologists in institutional research. But part of the success of our fifteen-year collaboration is attributable to the natural marriage between these two professions. Community psychologists can find meaningful careers in institutional research, and institutional research can benefit from the unique perspective and values that community psychologists bring to their work.