The institutional research function was conceived during the 1950's as a mechanism for centralizing and facilitating the compilation, analysis, and reporting of data regarding an individual college or university.
The accountability movement that drove much of higher education over the subsequent decades, rapid changes in technology over that period, and the significantly increased reporting demands of federal agencies, served to accelerate and expand the growth of the institutional research function.
Today, the institutional research function in higher education provides a complex and diverse set of activities that are designed to enhance administrative decision-making, respond to the external demands placed upon institutions, inform institutional policy development, and provide empirical data to underpin institutional planning and budgeting. In the broadest terms, institutional research is research that seeks a deeper understanding of the institution, and its properties and attributes.
The following excerpt from the literature put institutional research in a more operational context.
Institutional research is the sum total of all activities directed at empirically describing the full spectrum of functions (educational, administrative, and support) at a college or university. Institutional research activities examine those functions in their broadest definitions and, in the context of both internal and external environments, embrace data collection and analytical strategies in support of decision making at the institution.
Source: Middaugh, M.F. (1990). "The Nature and Scope of Institutional Research," Organizing Effective Institutional Research Offices. New Directions for Institutional Research, no. 66. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
The institutional research function assumes diverse roles within an institution of higher education. While it serves to gather, organize, and make sense of data and information regarding the institution, it also assists the institution in stepping back, with a measure of objectivity, to reflect analytically upon the meaning and import of those findings as they impact institutional growth, stability, and quality.