Halfway in the can: An examination of data use in college and university decision making

Nichole Shumanis Rowles, University of Pennsylvania


To make decisions in the…academic world is still to travel without maps.—Sir Eric Ashby Sir Eric Ashby's laments concerning the failure of colleges and universities to use data to inform their decision making are relevant today. More broadly speaking, the way in which colleges and universities make decisions, ranging from how to market themselves to what course of study should be required of all undergraduates, is too often characterized by vague, conflicting goals; colleges and universities engage in decision-making processes that have been described as irrational and even random (Cohen & March, 1974). This qualitative, case-based dissertation examines the use of data in decision making among senior administrators and faculty at five diverse institutions. The study that is the basis for this dissertation assessed the continued applicability of Michael Cohen, James March and Johan Olsen's 30-year-old theory of garbage can decision making to the colleges and universities of today (Cohen et al., 1972, 1979). The study also sought to identify factors that contribute to or detract from an institution's tendency to use data in decision making. The garbage can model was found to describe aptly decision making by the faculty, who did not typically use data to inform their choices. Decision making among senior administrators, in contrast, was characteristically evidenced-based and evolving, albeit in varying degrees, toward the corporate model. An examination of the office of institutional research (IR office) revealed a campus' overall tendency to use data in its decision making. Specifically, three characteristics of the IR office—the size of the staff, the focus of the office's work, and the leadership provided by the director—were found to be particularly relevant in signaling the extent to which an institution subscribes to an evidenced-based approach to decision making. Taken as a whole, this dissertation offers a new understanding of data use and decision making among colleges and universities. These findings hold promise for both theorists and practitioners who seek to improve the extent to which colleges and universities make well-informed decisions.

Subject Area

Higher education|School administration

Recommended Citation

Rowles, Nichole Shumanis, "Halfway in the can: An examination of data use in college and university decision making" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3087459.