When IPEDS Surveys Reveal New Data and Lead to Tough Choices



It’s time to complete your IPEDS survey. It’s a complex, daunting task. The Department of Education wants to get a clear picture of your Title IV compliance. And you want to give information that secures federal funding for your institution.

While you know that IPEDS surveys can be taxing on you and your resources, there are surprises along the way. In particular, the discovery of inaccurate data and system inefficiencies can be challenging. But, they lead to critical moments for your institution to secure its federal backing.

Here, we first consider common ways educators make discoveries during the IPEDS process. Then, we entertain the tough questions and choices to which these discoveries lead. The goal is to help prepare yourself for any potential IPEDS survey surprises.


Reviewing your organization’s enrollment data is a critical step for making the most of your IPEDS survey results. You can choose from many tools offering some form of intelligent review—whether auditing former survey results, comparing year over year changes, or merely verifying data points via source material.

One (or all) of these options, as the officer of the survey’s completion, can be a challenging task in itself. Even more so, the discovery that your data has been previously incomplete or inflated can cause for some serious back pedaling. Of course, the discovery that it is completely accurate gives some real excitement – but is also a very rare joy.

Now, let’s shed some light on the dilemmas that incomplete or inflated data can bring up for your institution. We’ll look at the three primary challenges that an institution has when it comes to reconciling inaccurate figures. Our insights come from experience with large institutions of learning that rely on IPEDS outcomes.

Let their experiences encourage you to make the right call for your institution and seek a tool (or team) for making sure you provide the most accurate data possible.

Dilemmas in IPEDS Reporting

The Moral Dilemma

For our first case, in the process of data verification and discovery, you find you actually benefit from a systematic error.

This presents an ethical challenge and can – and often does – lead to willful denial that the institution’s data is inflated. The specific reason for this denial is, of course, that the institution feels they benefit in some way from presenting false IPEDS data.

In the short term perhaps some temporary gains are made. However, faced with the eventual outcome of discovery, they are certainly negligible. This is to say nothing of the moral implications of allowing your institution to exploit otherwise fair procedures and benefit from falsity.

The Interpersonal Crux

In another scenario, you can imagine that in the process of comparing year over year changes you realize that certain departments at your institution are reporting inaccurately, not at all, or relaxing their standards as they relate to institution-wide initiatives.

This circumstance opens the possibility that your IPEDS work could have material consequences for members of your staff when you bring these findings to light. Given that returns to your organization can be significantly and semi-permanently impacted by failures in record-keeping and reporting, these possibilities are real. They take a serious toll on morale, as well as split apart what had been finely tuned teams.

Immediately, one may only see that some difficult terminations, probations, or performance reports need be deployed. But realize that such actions also serve to underline your commitment to school-wide goals and exemplify commitment to overall improvement. While this does not have the same flavor of fairness (or lack thereof) as the moral dilemma example, it should prepare you to know that your IPEDS process can directly impact your staffing.

The Resource Question

Now, let’s say you’ve discovered inaccurate figures. You want to correct them, but there’s no person, time or data source available to deal with those inaccuracies. The question becomes not if you will do the right thing or if your staff is competent at reporting, but whether you have adequate resources in order to address the problems you find.

This question remains one of the most challenging for staff tasked with verifying, analyzing, and compiling IPEDS reports. Given that IPEDS results have significant consequence for your organization, it seems reasonable to assume that an adequate budget and schedule be given to the team responsible. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a faulty assumption. We have seen staff struggle with IPEDS reporting even when their hearts are in the right place and their minds are determined to see the task through.

At the start, one thinks, for example, that the reporting can be corrected year to year without sweeping changes in practices and tools. However, in the long run, doing so means that staff never have the opportunity to enjoy doing the real work for which they were hired. Instead, they too often find themselves continually correcting the course of a methodological problem with little resources to address it permanently. The outcome is an organization which is perpetually stressed for time – which can then lead to even more IPEDS errors.

Next Steps for IPEDS Reporters

We have considered three thematic concerns that play out during the process of IPEDS reporting.

  • In one instance, the concern is a moral one in which an institution must choose between what is right and what is profitable.
  • In another, the choice is between plainly divulging errors without getting bogged down by the interpersonal impacts they may have.
  • And, third, we considered the choice the institution has to give adequate resources to the IPEDS reporting team to avoid ongoing systemic error. (This is perhaps the most common and most troubling of all since neglect of the IPEDS process can spell disaster for an institution wishing to make the most of the requisite procedure.) 

As someone involved in IPEDS reporting, your job is to navigate the outcomes of discovering errors within your institution’s data, its staff practices, and its overall system. It can be surprising how a simple report can impact an organization at its ethical, interpersonal, and administrative levels.

Your next step, knowing that you take your reporting seriously, is to simply realize that your IPEDS work is truly consequential for you, your team, and your institution as a whole.

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