Top IPEDS Submission Mistakes: Based on Real Conversations



The IPEDS submission process is typically not a smooth one. From accessing to collecting to validating to formatting IPEDS data, there are numerous stages where mistakes can – and often do – occur. We’ve assembled a list of some of the most common mistakes made during that process. (This list is based on conversations and interactions with various higher education professionals actively involved in IPEDS reporting.)

Data Entry Errors

The most common mistake made when submitting IPEDS data is simply typing the numbers incorrectly – basic human error. Digits get swapped. A key gets hit one too many times (the difference between 10,000 and 100,000!). The wrong key is hit. All sorts of things can happen.

Of course, the reasons why these mistakes occur can vary. A person may be stressed or tired. They may have spent so much time looking at spreadsheets that they are numbers weary, and things start to blur together. Perhaps the deadline is looming, and they’ve chosen speed over accuracy. Or, heck, maybe they’re just a bad typist. While it may be impossible to eliminate human error, by at least being aware of these scenarios you can work to minimize their occurrences.

Not Reading Instructions

One of the top mistakes discovered is that people don’t read all the instructions provided. There are at least five reference materials for each version of an IPEDS survey, including the package, form, instructions, FAQ and import specifications. They all contain various pieces of the puzzle concerning the exact data required. Making a mistake in this capacity could prove to be huge, as the government is apt to make changes to the surveys. If you don’t read the instructions, you may miss them.

So, why don’t people read the instructions? Again, time is a frequent reason. They just don’t have it. Another reason could be that the person simply feels they don’t need to. Does this ring a bell? “I’ve been managing our IPEDS reports for the last five years. I know what I’m doing.” Regardless of the reason, it’s best to thoroughly read, dissect and understand all documentation before creating your data file.

Changes in Calculation

When a school changes how they calculate a number (such as FTE), it can cause a significant increase or decrease compared to the previous year’s number. While the calculation itself is not necessarily a mistake, forgetting to annotate the change in your IPEDS submission definitely is. If you don’t annotate and explain the reason the number changed so significantly, it causes red flags & audits from the federal government. (Not to mention, the end result could be a hefty fine for your institution!) Once you provide that information, you are fine – but the delay and stress it can cause can be significant.

Changing Data Sources

Like the previous section, changing your data sources, in and of itself, is not a mistake. Data sources change over time, for various reasons. But not properly accounting for that change can turn out to be a huge mistake. First, not everyone may have been notified of the change. If someone is pulling data from the wrong source, or searching for a source that is no longer there, this can add time and confusion to the data gathering process – not to mention additional work. Second, as with changes in calculation, not explaining the change – should there be a significant variance in numbers – could prove costly to your institution.

The Devil’s in the Details

Often, those doing IPEDS reporting don’t pay attention to key details. While this may sound surprising, it is not as uncommon as you might think. For example, they don’t pay careful attention to the import specifications regarding data type and valid entries. The way the data should be entered isn’t always intuitive and is not completely consistent among the surveys (e.g. some numeric fields are required to be entered as left-justified alpha-numeric instead of right-justified numeric). Such a mistake may not be readily apparent, and the resulting invalidation could frustrate an individual who has to then scour the data to locate that error.

So, what now?

We’ve identified five types of mistakes often made during the IPEDS reporting process. What now? By singling out these errors and, in some cases, why they occur, our hope is to make you aware of them as you begin processing your next set of IPEDS surveys. Because, by being aware of these potential mistakes, you will be more likely to take precautionary measures to minimize them – if not eliminate them altogether.

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