Building a Bridge Between Student Affairs and Institutional Research

Building a Bridge Between Student Affairs and Institutional Research

As data and assessment become more important across the university, making strong connections and collaborations with key partners should be a top priority for every Student Affairs assessment professional.  My colleague and fellow SAAL blogger, Melinda Stoops, shared her view on The Power of Collaboration in Assessment Efforts, just last month. I’d like to focus on key partner she mentioned: Institutional Research (IR).

Institutional Research offices work on behalf of the university to collect, analyze, communicate out, and use data for decision making across the university.  At the University at Buffalo, this office coordinates large data collection efforts and reports data out to external and internal constituents that impact the university’s ranking nationally in addition to our compliance with various accreditation bodies and the standards of our state university system.  They also serve a key role in the governance of campus data structure alongside our IT department.  All in all, they are pretty busy folks.

The better a Student Affairs division is at capturing, storing, and sharing their data, the easier it is for IR to leverage this information in their reporting.  Below are some ideas on how you can build your relationship Institutional Research:

Know Yourself:  Before reaching out to IR, make sure you have a clear grasp of your own role within your division and the university as a whole.  What is your strategic vision? Your mission? Who are your existing partners on campus and what has made those relationships so strong? Taking this time to reflect will help you maximize your meetings with your colleagues and hopefully lead to the development of clear goals for both offices. 

Speak the Same “Language”:  In the spirit of full disclosure, when I joined the University at Buffalo, I knew just about as much of the day-to-day operations of an IR office as they knew about the work of Student Affairs.  In Higher Education, we use different language to talk about the same things, and without a decoder ring around, there is time wasted on trying to understand each other.  Many universities, though, do share a common language around data.  You may share a data warehouse with IR or use many of the same systems to collect and manipulate this information.  You also have the language of shared assessment projects and frameworks for learning across campus. It is through mastery of this special shared “language” that both the IR and Student Affairs offices can overcome the barriers of our silos and work more productively together.

Find The Right Opportunities:  Working on smaller projects together can help build the kind of relationship that can last for the long haul.  Work with IR to create a survey calendar across campus so you can both know when major assessment initiatives are hitting your students.  You could also team up to overhaul a tired survey instrument or revamp policies and procedures around data privacy and use.  The key here is no matter the project, there should be a benefit to both sides.  The reason for collaboration should not be purely transactional, but help move both offices and even the university as a whole forward toward a common goal.

Share Your Story: A lot of the work in IR is filling the requests for data from various leaders on campus, but they do not always get to see what has happened as a result.  Did IR help you gather data for a project?  Let them know the outcome or just keep them up to date on what is happening in your area of campus. Take your colleagues out for coffee or send an encouraging note of appreciation after a job well done. These small steps can go a long way to build strong relationships with key partners in any office, but are particularly valuable when making friends with people you may have to call on when facing a data emergency.

Strong collaboration between IR and Student Affairs can lead to great advances in a university’s use of data for improvement.  In addition, Student Affairs practitioners can also provide valuable context and understanding for some of the indirect measures that IR collects annually for institutional effectiveness.  With just a few small adjustments to your practice, you can build the kind of relationship that will propel your office and university into the assessment future.

For more information on the benefits of this collaboration, see the NASPA, AIR, and Educause publication, “Institutions’ Use of Data and Analytics for Student Success: Results From a Landscape Analysis.”

Daniel Kaczmarek, University at Buffalo 

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