Role of Institutional Research in External Reporting and Responding to Internal Requests

  1. Background
  2. External Requests
    1. General Principle
      1. What is data?
      2. What are official or public data?
    2. Exceptions
    3. Who Gathers Data?
      1. Area knowledge
      2. Access to data
      3. Knowledge of the data
    4. Non-Routine External Requests for Study Participation
  3. Internal Requests
    1. General Principle
    2. Exceptions
      1. Official data
      2. Information across areas
      3. Public data
  4. Conclusions
  5. Examples of Information Requests and Recommended Actions
  6. Endnotes


Many requests for information about the College come to us from external entities, including federal and state government, consortia, higher education organizations, publishers of admissions guidebooks, researchers, parents, alumni, members of the public, news media, etc. We recognize our responsibility to provide accurate information to those who need it. One of the important roles envisioned for the Office of Institutional Research was to serve as a clearinghouse of information about the institution. The goal of this function was to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the information that we provide, using commonly accepted definitions and guidelines for reporting. That role was affirmed at the President's Staff Retreat in August 1999, when it was stated that any official numbers about the institution should come through the Office of Institutional Research1.

This role has led to some practical concerns. Should the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) be responsible for every piece of information that flows off the campus? If not, under what circumstances should it not? There is a need for a clear guideline that can be shared with the campus community. That guideline depends on the needs and concerns of the College. (That is, though there are some common practices among IR offices at different campuses, the blend of responsibilities is unique to each campus.)

Closely tied to this issue is when the IR office should respond to an internal request for data directly (e.g. from faculty, students, or staff) versus when that response should come from another office on campus.

This document attempts to outline the areas and extent of Institutional Research involvement in responding to internal and external requests for information about Swarthmore College, and to provide a guideline. "General Principles" are followed by very important "Exceptions." Finally, a page of examples is provided at the end of this document to help clarify. While many situations will be clear-cut, others won't. In those cases, the guidelines can be a starting point for discussions about the best way of accomplishing the goal of providing appropriate and meaningful information that is accurate to those who need it.

While reporting is often done through the Institutional Research Office, it should be remembered that the IR office seldom "owns" the data that it uses. While all data on campus is theoretically open to IR, the IR officer must take special care to use it correctly and wisely. There will necessarily be frequent consultations with the data owners. Therefore, the IR officer must depend on the expertise, guidance, cooperation, and good will of the owners of the data in each area.

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External Requests

General Principle

Except for requests from the news media, which should go through the office of News and Information, all external requests for official or public data should go through IR, with specific exceptions noted below. Whether the IR officer completes the request herself or coordinates the request with another office will be based on her expertise in the topic area, access to relevant Swarthmore data, and expertise in working with the particular Swarthmore data (discussed below).

What is data? "Data" refers to numerical summaries of aspects of our institution, for example, number of students enrolled, graduation rates, or percentage of faculty who are women. Examples of information that would generally not be considered data are directory information about staff or faculty, or narrative descriptions of programs, policies, or facilities.

What are official or public data? Figures are considered official or public if they are mandated by state or federal guidelines (e.g. the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or "PDE"; the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or "IPEDS"); are collected routinely by recognized higher education agencies or consortia (e.g. AAUP, COFHE, HEDS); or will appear in publications that are widely available (e.g. admissions guidebooks).


With the exception of PDE and IPEDS reporting, mandated routine reporting specific to an individual area should be conducted by that area. (The responsible official in that area should, however, consult with OIR whenever figures outside of that area (e.g. enrollments) are required for a form.) Examples of reporting that should by conducted not by IR, but by the appropriate office include: athletics reporting, crime reporting, tax forms, human resource work utilization reporting, etc. In general, straightforward office-to-agency reports should go through the appropriate office. If the information requested on a form may be of general interest or may be made public, it would be helpful if a copy were provided to OIR. When information may be used in various other ways, the IR office should be involved.

Who Gathers the Data?

Whether a particular external request should be done in OIR versus sent to another office for completion will be based on the IR officer's knowledge of the area, access to the data, and knowledge of the data. For example, currently all state and federal reporting are coordinated through OIR. This does not mean that the IR officer completes every form herself. A number of forms are sent to other officials on campus for their response and returned to OIR for forwarding to the requesting agency. On these forms, it is generally the official who completes the form who signs off on it. Examples of this are the IPEDS-Finance Form and the IPEDS Library Form. The IR officer does complete forms for other kinds of data, including student enrollments, degrees, degree programs offered, graduation rates, and student residency.

Area knowledge: This guideline will depend on the person in charge of IR and the role of institutional research at the College. An institutional researcher is bound by a professional code of ethics to not accept assignments outside of his or her realm of expertise. At the same time she should seek training in areas deemed by the institution to be important to the Institutional Research role. In areas where the IR officer has some knowledge or expertise, it may be reasonable for her to fulfill a request. In areas where the IR officer does not have expertise, it should be sent to the appropriate expert on campus.

Access to data: In the situations where the IR officer has little or no access to the particular type of data, she should not attempt to complete a request, but rather forward it to the appropriate office. One example of this is data about the Library. Currently, these data are not centrally maintained and are not accessible to the IR officer. Requests for such information will be sent to the Librarian or her designee. Access involves not only being able to retrieve data, but also access to the data coding and field definitions. Though the IR officer theoretically has access to all data in the Banner system (and associated views in BI/Query), she does not necessarily have a complete "dictionary" of what all the data fields mean, how they are populated, and how they relate to each other. Where this kind of mapping has not been made available, data, though technically accessible, cannot be used.

Knowledge of the data: It makes sense for the IR officer to be the one reporting data that is commonly used by the IR office, because in order to use these data effectively the IR officer should be very knowledgeable about it. This is more than knowledge or expertise in a particular area - it is about knowing the particular data on this campus very well, both in form and in content. The IR officer is therefore in a position to accurately provide meaningful information about these areas to outsiders.

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Responding to Non-Routine External Requests for Study Participation

Increasingly we are asked to participate in research on higher education by everyone from dissertation students to higher education agencies to world- renowned scholars. These requests may range from completing a simple one page form to providing very complex historical data to providing data files at the individual level. Swarthmore must balance the value of the research effort to the public, to the higher education community, and to itself against the burden it presents on College resources (especially staff time) in responding. (This discussion is not meant to include the more informal peer-to-peer type of requests, e.g. queries posted on electronic discussion lists).

Because of the expertise of the IR officer in conducting higher education research, any request for such a study should go to her for a response strategy. In cases where the institutional burden is minimal, the IR officer may make the decision of whether or not to participate. In cases where the institutional burden is higher, she will notify the Institutional Research Advisory Group2, telling them:

  1. Who is requesting the study
  2. Nature of the data requested
  3. The purpose and intended use of the information
  4. What offices will need to be involved and to what extent
  5. What peer institutions are known to be participating
  6. Deadline(s) for responding
  7. Benefits (if any) of participation
  8. Her recommendation regarding Swarthmore's participation

The IR Advisory Group should then inform the IR officer of their judgement, or whether they need to discuss it further. If the IR Advisory Group decides that Swarthmore should participate in the study, the IR officer will notify all affected offices immediately, providing them with all the relevant materials. If the IR officer will be directly involved in providing data, she will serve as the study liaison, coordinating the responses of other involved offices. If the IR officer is not involved in providing data, a judgement will be made whether the response should go through her or whether it would be more appropriate for another officer on campus to serve as the liaison, using the same guidelines as described above under "exceptions."

Internal Requests

These issues lead to the question of who should respond when an internal requestor needs information. For example, when the IR officer and the Registrar have equal access, expertise, and facility to respond to a particular data request who should do it?

General Principle

IR should conduct research and analysis in support of planning and decision-making critical to the College. Providing raw data for others to use, and providing simple summaries is not research, and should be done by the appropriate office3. For example, a request for simple trends over time in enrollments in science courses can be done by the Registrar's office. Examining those trends to see if differences by gender are statistically significant, and comparing it with national data would normally be done by IR.


Official data: IR should usually assemble data that should be based on "official" figures. (Example: Degrees awarded in the sciences for use in a grant proposal.)

Information across areas: IR should conduct most analyses that involve combining data across areas. (Example: Relating retention and graduation rates to SAT scores and financial aid received.)

Public data: IR should usually assemble data that will appear publicly and therefore ought to be consistent with "official" figures. (Example: Fact Sheet, total enrollments that appear in Admissions publications.)

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These guidelines are meant to clarify the role of Institutional Research in reporting College information. Since the IR office is relatively new here, these guidelines may evolve somewhat over time. However, they should serve as a good starting point. We are fortunate to work in an institution that highly values collegiality. Guidelines such as this are not meant to replace or even reduce the valuable discussion that takes place here, but to help us all to make sure that we are handling requests for information as effectively as possible.

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Examples of Information Requests and Recommended Action

Request: An editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer calls to ask for our current enrollments.
Recommended Action: The call should be directed to Office of News and Information. They should refer to Fact Book or contact IR for "official" enrollment figures.
Reason: This is an external request for data from the news media, so News and Information should handle it. Since the figure will be made public, it should be based on our official data, which IR is responsible for providing.

Request: A department chair would like to know about the enrollments in a particular introductory course in her department over the past decade, in order to plan for the next few years.
Recommended Action: The Registrar can provide this.
Reason: This is an internal request for simple summary data (no analysis or tying to other institutional data). There is no obvious need for it to be based on public/official data, and it will likely not be used for other purposes.

Request: A publisher of a new guidebook aimed at students with learning disabilities sends a survey to the Deans' office. The responses to the survey will be used to describe Swarthmore in the guidebook.
Recommended Action: The Deans' office should forward the survey to IR. IR will review the survey to be sure they are collecting the information in a meaningful way, and consult with the Deans' office, Admissions, and News and Information to determine whether Swarthmore should participate in the survey. (If it's a particularly burdensome survey, the IR Advisory Group should be consulted as well.) If so, IR should complete the survey using official data, with the assistance of other offices as needed. (It is possible that many or most of the responses will need to come from the Deans' Office, but IR should still coordinate it.)
Reason: These data will appear publicly in a guidebook, and so should reflect official figures, and be reviewed for consistency with information provided for other guidebooks.

Request: The US Department of Education requests the reporting of crime statistics.
Recommended Action: The survey should go to the Director of Public Safety, who should confer with IR for any enrollment, staff counts, etc. that may be requested. A copy of the completed survey should be sent to IR.
Reason: This is an office-to-agency report that requests data for which the IR office has no access or expertise. A copy should go to IR since these data are publicly available and it's easy to conceive of it being used in ways other than intended by the collecting agency. (For example, a college ranking publication may decide to add crime rate to the factors considered.)

Request: Someone from another college calls to see if our applications for admission are up or down as of a certain point in time.
Recommended Action: The Admissions Office should handle this.
Reason: This is an informal request for unofficial data from a peer. Since data at a point midway through the admissions cycle are not yet official, Admissions Office is also in the best position to decide whether the information is too sensitive to release.

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1. In order to promote consistency in data used to describe the institution, OIR is responsible for producing an annual Factbook, which contains general data about the institution presented in accordance with standard definitions. The Factbook, available on paper to each department as well as on the web to all, includes the most commonly requested types of information, and should be a starting point for anyone needing information about Swarthmore.

2. Current membership includes VP for Finance and Planning, VP for Alumni, Development, and Public Relations, Provost, Dean of the College, and Acting Dean of Admissions.

3. The IR officer does not have the authority to release to anyone data on individuals (students, faculty, staff, etc.). Requests for data about individuals should go to the responsible office.

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