Encourage data-informed decisions in academic departments

In this excerpt of research from EAB’s Academic Affairs Forum, we profile how senior leaders can encourage more data-informed decision making in academic departments. First, we examine the limitations of using institution-level metrics to evaluate academic departments and then fine-tune the recommended metrics to pursue three critical objectives at a department level:

  • Cost efficiency
  • Enrollment growth
  • Faculty diversity

Limits of institution-wide metrics

The strategic plans of many colleges and universities emphasize laudable goals, including cost efficiency, enrollment growth, student outcomes, research productivity, and faculty diversity. While central administrators have some options for moving the needle on these initiatives—through budget models, for example—the real power to advance change rests with academic departmental leaders, who exert influence over faculty recruitment, promotion and tenure, course scheduling, program design, and much more.

Unfortunately, most academic department chairs and their faculty rarely receive data about their performance on critical institutional priorities. When they do, the data often includes metrics that are outside of the department’s control, too complex to easily understand, misaligned with institutional priorities, and easy to game without making meaningful changes.

Take, for example, student-faculty ratio, an eye-catching measure for both national rankings and campus marketing literature. Departments can be perversely incented to “game” this metric by capping enrollment in high-demand courses to maintain the ratio, shutting out would-be enrollees. In the graphs below, EAB’s Academic Performance Solutions takes a closer look at four public institutions reporting a 16:1 student-faculty ratio, demonstrating that this average may mask meaningful variation in the student experience.

Wide Variance in the Real Experience of Four “Similar” Institutions

Variance in Real Experiences

Minding the instructional capacity gap

Given the limitations of metrics that aggregate an entire institution’s performance, academic department chairs are hungry for measurable objectives that enable them to track and influence their own units’ progress.

In pursuing cost efficiency, EAB recommends that departments consider the instructional capacity gap, calculated as the difference between potential course offering capacity and the number of courses actually offered. Below you can see how the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Social Sciences determined its own instructional capacity gap.

University of Victoria

The instructional capacity gap enables department leaders to decide whether sections should be added or reduced and whether to adjust funding for adjuncts. It can prompt important conversations about when and why course releases—particularly unfunded course releases—are granted. Without this information, course releases and instructional capacity gaps can grow to nearly 50 percent of the total instructional capacity in some departments.

Tracking major migration

Enrollment growth is another goal where the standard metrics underserve unit leaders. Rather than focusing exclusively on student headcount, which can cast small but mission-critical programs in an unfair light, or student credit hour generation, which can create unwanted competition and course duplication, departments should consider a more nuanced analysis of “major migration.” A major migration assessment reveals when and why students move into, among, or out of departments. The chart below suggests how departments might respond to student migration patterns.

Four “Types” of Majors Invite Differentiated Interventions

Four Majors

After discovering a net loss of majors over a decade, Villanova University’s Philosophy Department focused on attracting students to its major through first-year courses. Given the large pre-med population at the university, the department created a “Good Doctor” course focusing on medical ethics and taught by senior faculty with strong teaching reputations. The department used this course and its other introductory general education courses to more actively recruit students who might be interested in a minor, major, or double major. The department has begun to reverse its ten-year decline, growing the number of majors from 18 to 42.

Monitoring the pipeline

As a final example, in pursuing faculty diversity and inclusion, most institutions exclusively track the institution-wide share of underrepresented faculty. This statistic can be misleading, particularly when underrepresented faculty are concentrated in particular units, such as gender and ethnicity studies. Instead, departments should consider recruiting pipeline stage conversion rates, tracking each step of a hiring search to ensure equity. A representative talent pipeline, as well as potential reasons for why applicants fall off at each stage, is below.

Assessing the Leaks in Low-throughput Pipelines

Diagnosis of Shortages

As one component of a solution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity broadened the entry point to this pipeline, offering positions to units with expected hiring needs and retirements and encouraging those departments to look to their postdoctoral scholars as candidates. Postdocs are given UNC-specific tenure guidance, and the investment has paid off, with 50% of participants hired as full-time faculty since 2006.

Use data to prevent enrollment-demand capacity mismatches

This four-page resource will help you identify student demand and instructional capacity mismatches, understand new instructional capacity metrics, make data-informed decisions about resource allocation, and more. Get your copy.

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