Research Insights: The Importance of Institutional Research

Winter 2024

By Eric Heilman

This article appeared as "Mining Craft" in the Winter 2024 issue of Independent School.

From suggested shows on Netflix to shopping recommendations on Amazon to our phone’s autocorrect abilities, we’re all familiar with the concept of Big Data being harnessed to make our lives easier. Although it might not seem obvious, independent schools have the power to do this, too.

Independent schools are often sitting on troves of data about various constituencies but may not be leveraging that information to its full potential. Historically, the main way schools use their data has been to accomplish operational tasks such as making admission decisions, tracking individual student attendance, writing budgets, producing reports cards and transcripts, creating board reports, or tracking fundraising activity. But there’s so much more schools can be doing beyond mere task completion. 

Institutional research (IR), defined as the work of using quantitative and qualitative data to describe and analyze school processes to improve decision-making, is well-established at colleges and universities and is increasingly recognized by independent school leaders as a vital practice. When schools learn how IR can be used to identify new sources of applicants, monitor systemic discrepancies in academic outcomes across demographic identities, and even quantify “squishy” concepts like wellness or inclusion and belonging, they often become enthusiastic about the concept of starting an IR initiative—only to then wrestle with logistical questions around what an IR function looks like on the ground.

This kind of strategic structural change can often be eclipsed by a myriad of seemingly more urgent challenges that crop up each school year. And in a world awash in data, it can feel like a daunting task for schools to create a new system that wrangles information from multiple databases and surveys, implements appropriate analysis techniques, effectively communicates actionable insights, and supports the community in growing their data literacy levels. Schools that successfully navigate these initial hurdles, however, are using IR to improve operational efficiency, substantiate mission statements, detect institutional blind spots, and create measurable frameworks that gauge progress toward school community goals. 

In 2020, with the help of an E.E. Ford Foundation Educational Leadership grant, the Maret School (DC) established the Center for Institutional Research in Independent Schools (CIRIS), which had started in 2018 as a listserv and resource-sharing network. Now reaching more than 350 independent schools, both through its own programming and collaborations with professional and regional associations, CIRIS offers free resources and professional development for institutional researchers and school leaders who are looking to transition from a task-oriented treatment of data to a strategy focused on deriving insights.

In 2023, the fourth annual Summer Fellows Lab, one of CIRIS’s professional development programs that brings together IR thought leaders around a specific topic, compiled a resource manual for schools looking to launch or grow an institutional research program. In the process of writing “Data-Informed Decision Making: A Guide to Institutional Research in Independent Schools,” the cohort designed and administered the first Institutional Research State of the Industry survey (IR SOTI). The survey—which was distributed nationally to schools affiliated with CIRIS, the Enrollment Management Association, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, NAIS, and One Schoolhouse—asked school leaders about how they are approaching institutional research. 

The Findings

Data Analysis and Institutional Research Staff

The IR SOTI, which garnered responses from 145 schools, aimed to establish a baseline for the prevalence, focus, and structure of IR programs in independent schools and to help guide schools looking to initiate an IR program of their own. It asked: how common it is for schools to have a full- or part-time role dedicated to IR, how those roles are structured organizationally, what kind of experience institutional researchers have, and what kinds of projects they focus on.

More than half of respondents already have or are currently in the process of establishing an institutional research role in their school. About 36% of respondents said they already have such a role, whether full or part time, while an additional 21% indicated that they are actively considering establishing one. These rates were similar across school region, size, and type. 

Current Role/Title

While institutional research roles vary in title and organizational position, they are still almost universally part-time positions. Depending on their title, most institutional researchers spend about 25%–50% of their time carrying out their data analysis responsibilities while spending the rest on other roles like teaching or working in IT. The five most common job titles for the people doing insight-oriented data analysis are director of institutional research (or institutional researcher), database manager or administrator, assistant head of school (often “assistant head of school for strategic initiatives”), director of admission or enrollment management, and director of technology. Most frequently, they report directly to the head of school, though reporting to an assistant head is also common. 

There are pros and cons to each of these organizational structures, and the amount of time an institutional researcher spends on analysis is closely tied to the age of the IR program and the state of the school’s data infrastructure and governance practices. For schools that become more familiar with what IR can offer and improve the quality of their data strategy, the scope of IR work typically grows over time.   

Institutional researchers tend to have extensive experience in independent schools but are often newer to an IR role. About 81% of respondents who currently do IR work reported having been in independent schools for at least six years, and 54% reported at least 10 years of experience in independent schools. On the other hand, only 31% of institutional researchers reported that they have been engaged in the work of insight-oriented data analysis for more than five years; only about 8% of responding institutional researchers reported 11 or more years of experience in the role. About two-thirds of responding institutional researchers identified as female and 19% identified as a person of color, important context given how often IR work is focused on measuring diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) goals.

At this stage, it is unlikely that many applicants for an institutional researcher role would already have a long history of working in a similar position, and schools should anticipate that strong candidates for these jobs will have deeper experience with independent school operations generally than they do in IR specifically.

Types of Institutional Research Projects
Heads of school most often initiate IR projects. About 54% of respondents indicated that the head of school determines the research projects, though the process by which heads prioritize their projects may vary from school to school. The five most common topic areas: analysis of student academic outcomes, admission/enrollment management analysis, constituent feedback surveys, measuring holistic student engagement or wellness, and quantifying DEIB metrics.

Schools that are just starting an IR program often ask about how projects should be selected and what types of projects are most accessible. First, having strong and direct support from the head is crucial. And the best initial projects are in areas where schools typically have cleaner, better maintained data sets like report card grades and admission information. Good IR truly rests on the foundation of excellent data governance.

Common obstacles to starting an IR program. Sixty percent of respondents reported that their primary obstacles to establishing an IR role were institutional bandwidth or time constraints. About 14% of schools that intend to start an IR program reported that they have the resources they need to proceed but aren’t sure how to begin. Only about 15% of respondents who don’t yet have an IR program reported that their primary obstacle was funding constraints. 

In terms of next steps, about 60% of schools that do not yet have an IR position said they intend to incorporate a part-time IR role into a larger position, while another 20% reported that they will hire outside contractors to help complete data analysis work or to assist in building internal capacity to execute IR work moving forward. Twenty-eight percent of schools that are not currently looking to start an IR function reported that they don’t yet know enough about how schools use IR and need to learn more. 

Looking Ahead

The results of the IR SOTI demonstrate the growing realization among independent schools that IR offers a way to strategically leverage data to build insights. Schools looking to do more with their data should consider the following:

  • IR programs start small and grow over time. Gradually growing a part-time role is more common than immediately jumping to a full-time IR position.
  • The first step in starting an IR program is to fully understand the state of the school’s data governance and data quality. School leaders often overestimate the completeness and accessibility of their data.
  • Establishing a viable IR program requires more than hiring a data analyst. For an institutional researcher’s work to make an operational impact, school leadership must commit to growing the institution’s data culture across the entire community.

The independent school IR community is growing, vibrant, and deeply supportive. As schools determine the best way forward on their IR journey, they have a well of collective wisdom from which to draw.  

Get More

The Center for Institutional Research in Independent Schools (CIRIS) provides free resources and opportunities to connect around IR. Go to to:

Eric Heilman

Eric Heilman is the director of institutional research at Maret School in Washington, DC, where he also serves as the executive director of the Center for Institutional Research in Independent Schools. He is also the senior institutional research strategist at Mission & Data, a consulting firm focused on leadership and governance.