Back to The Future

Institutional Research, Then and Now
Published October 15, 2021
By Karen L. Webber, PhD

SCUP’s Planning 50th Anniversary Blog Series

Editor’s Note: October 2021 marks Planning for Higher Education’s 50th issue! To celebrate, we’re looking back at earlier articles in Planning to reflect on how things change (and, sometimes, how they don’t).

Decision-making in higher education today is complex and anything but routine. Recent challenges include the decline in 18-to-22-year-olds, a commitment to greater access and equitable outcomes for a diverse population, funding needs, stakeholder accountability, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of these issues are recent, many challenges are long-term, but they all require thoughtful, objective consideration. How should senior decision makers balance the needs of many and steer the institution in the right direction? Although not a totally new concept, the need for data-informed decision-making in higher education today requires contemporary knowledge and skill from institutional research (IR) colleagues. They transform data into actionable information nuanced with contextualized insights that are essential in integrated academic planning.

In 1975, William Lasher offered his remarks at SCUP’s Institute on Coordinating the Planning Process, and later adapted his comments for Planning for Higher Education on the coming of age for IR. In Planning, he reminded us of the origins and growth of IR in the US. Lasher argued that threads of IR, with a formal founding in the early 1960s, could be seen in higher education as far back as 1701, when officials at “Yale gathered information on the organizational structure of Harvard . . . to instigate reform” (Lasher 1976, 18).

Over the years, we’ve seen the importance of institutional planning in higher education and the growth of IR across the globe, and we acknowledge that skilled professionals in IR remain important leaders in data gathering, analysis, and reporting. Fincher’s (1978) analogy of IR to work within a ship’s engine room is fitting: having the access to see deeply within the organization and offering information that provides useful decision support to senior administrative leaders. In addition, Volkwein’s (2008) “golden triangle of IR” reinforces the role of IR in collaborative decision support by situating it squarely among institutional planning and policy analysis, enrollment and financial management, and outcomes assessment and program review.

While today’s IR still serves as an important decision support function to assist senior leaders in planning and policy formation, I agree with Lasher (1976) that as IR continues to mature, it must adjust as needed to remain strong and relevant. In today’s higher ed world, IR leaders must possess a variety of heightened technical and analytic skills, up-to-date knowledge about higher education broadly, and the always-important ability to contextualize data that has been transformed for relevant decision-making.

Those who skillfully perform at all three levels of Terenzini’s Tiers of Organizational Intelligence (1993, 2013), I believe, are the most successful in performing data-informed decision-making, the process of organizing data resources, conducting appropriate analyses, and developing data insights to provide the contexts and an evidence base for formulating organizational decisions. Further, the importance of collaboration has only increased since Thrasher’s comments in 1976; today, IR’s work with colleagues in institutional planning builds integrated planning that can lead to successful organizational management.

While some facets of higher education have remained the same over time, IR professionals must be ready to respond to change. For example, Big Data and data analytics play important roles in today’s data-informed decision-making. The sophistication of today’s technology, access to and the ability to store a massive amount of data, and reduced computing costs have offered the opportunity to gather and use volumes of data for decision-making (Webber & Zheng 2020). While institutional leaders are eager to use the data that can be collected, important issues must be addressed related to data security, ethical and responsible uses of the data, and resources associated with learning analytic platforms and constituent responsibility management (CRMs) systems. Fundamental to these issues, IR leaders must be central in discussions about and actions for user data literacy and campus-wide data governance plans.

Many questions fill our conversations: How can we balance more diverse student access, financial and academic assistance, and institutional quality? What is the right balance of in-person and online instruction? Does swipe card or cell phone ping data offer an accurate picture of student engagement and learning? These are critical questions for institutional leaders, and institutional researchers are in a prime position to assist. As they did many years ago, although with some new issues, IR professionals carry out their decision support role by helping campus colleagues understand the importance of data management and governance, responsibilities for colleagues in data stewardship, considerations for data security, the importance of data definitions in the interpretation of data, and how to contextualize and visualize data for decision-making purposes. Data alone—and greater volumes of data—are only helpful when they are framed within the particular institutional circumstance. Contextualized decision-making is the goal, and it can be achieved with the assistance of skilled and knowledgeable IR professionals.

As we proceed forward in the 21st century, today’s higher education leaders face some new issues as well as others that have challenged leaders before, all of which will require skill and creativity. No one expected the disruptive events we’ve experienced from COVID-19. Perhaps we are in a “back to the future” moment. IR’s deep and strong base offers a guide to the future, and its professionals must be ready for change and new challenges. The use of today’s data, contextualized analyses, and integrated planning, when applied properly and being mindful of the critical need for secure and responsible consumption of data, can help us move through our current challenges. In doing so, higher education will remain strong, relevant, and valued by all.


Fincher, C. 1978. “Institutional Research as Organizational Intelligence.” Research in Higher Education 8, no. 2: 189–192.

Lasher, W. 1976. “Institutional Research: Coming of Age in the 1970s.”
Planning for Higher Education 5, no. 1:18–20.

Terenzini, P.T. 1993. “On the Nature of Institutional Research and the Knowledge and Skills it Requires.” Research in Higher Education 34, no. 1. doi:10.1007/BF00991859.

Terenzini, P.T. 2013. “On the Nature of Institutional Research Revisited: Plus ça Change?”Research in Higher Education 54, no. 137. doi:10.1007/s11162-012-9274-3.

Volkwein, J. F. 2008. “The Foundations and Evolution of Institutional Research,” in D.G. Terkla (ed.) Institutional Research: More Than Just Data: New Directions for Higher Education, vol. 141, 5–20.

Webber, K. & H. Zheng. 2020. Big Data on Campus: Data Informed Decision Making in Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

About the Author

Karen L. Webber, PhD, is a professor at the University of Georgia’s McBee Institute of Higher Education. She has published research on institutional effectiveness in higher education, and in 2020 she co-edited (with Henry Zheng) Big Data on Campus: Data Analytics and Decision Making in Higher Education.