The Most Common Performance Indicators for Institutions and Their Boards

By Dawn Terkla    //    Volume 19,  Number 1   //    January/February 2011

What are the most common performance indicators for institutions and their boards? To evaluate the array of dashboards that have been created on campuses, Dawn Geronimo Terkla, associate provost for institutional research and evaluation at Tufts University, along with two colleagues from George Washington and Northeastern Universities, collected samples from 66 public and private institutions across the country, ranging from small colleges to major research universities. They gathered examples from a number of newsletters and listservs of the Association for Institutional Research and its regional affiliates, plus obtained some samples via a Google search. They obtained a good cross-section of the dashboards and indicators that nonprofit colleges and universities are using. Here are the results of their research:

Dashboard indicators consist of a variety of measures that generally are related to the strategic mission of the institution or to the specific office developing the dashboard. The first step in creating a dashboard, the selection of the indicators, is the most critical component.  Indicators should be 1) easy to understand, 2) relevant to the user, 3) strategic, 4) quantitative, 5) up-to-date with current information, and 6) not used in isolation.  And, of course, the data underlying the indicators must be reliable.

The researchers found that the number of indicators that institutions use and the actual measures they include vary greatly. The number ranged from as few as three to as many as 68.  Of the institutions studied, the average number of indicators used is about 29.   Very few indicators are common to all dashboards, supporting the idea that institutions develop their indicators based on their specific strategic plan and institutional characteristics.

We  grouped the measures into the following 11 broad categories, ordered by frequency of use.

TABLE 1 Indicator Group Usage Ranking by Category


This is the most widely used category and includes measures of endowment and expenses, advancement, financial aid, and tuition and fees.  Although the institutions used 100 different indicators in the endowment and expense group, the most frequent three are the market value of the endowment, endowment per FTE student, and endowment return or annual growth rate.  Under the broad category of advancement, the three most frequently used indicators are alumni giving rate, total gifts received, and value of alumni gifts.  With respect to financial aid, tuition discount rates, the percentage of students receiving aid, and the proportion receiving institutional grants are the most prevalent measures.  In addition to indicators of tuition and fees, some institutions have elected to include net tuition measures or tuition for specific student levels or programs.

TABLE 2 Financial


Seventy-nine percent of the institutions include some undergraduate admissions-related indicators.   The most frequently reported measures are yield (the percentage of those who were admitted who matriculated), admit rate (the percentage of those who applied who were offered acceptance), average SAT scores, number of applications, and percentage of students in the top 10 percent of the high-school class.  In addition, a little more than 20 percent of the institutions use measures of graduate admissions.  Those include number of applications, number of acceptances, yield, and graduate admissions test scores.

TABLE 3 Admissions Indicators


Over 77 percent of the dashboards contain some type of enrollment measure.  These include undergraduate enrolment, graduate enrolment, first year enrolment, transfer enrolment, enrollment by college or degree program, summer session enrolment, credit and non-credit enrolment, and distance education enrolment.

Additionally, 71 percent of the institutions include one or more enrollment measures of special populations.  Some of the characteristics of interest include citizenship, race/ethnicity, gender, full-time/part-time status, geographic diversity, religious affiliation, and age.

TABLE 4 Enrollment Indicators


Many institutions include indicators in their dashboards that describe their faculty.  These include the plethora of methods of counting faculty at an institution (full-time-equivalent faculty, tenured and tenure-track faculty, faculty with terminal degrees, and part-time faculty headcount).  Institutions also are interested in measures that reflect full-time and part-time ratios, the percentage of faculty who are female, minority, or international; and the percentage of faculty who receive national awards.  Some institutions are interested in measures of faculty compensation and use indicators like compensation by rank, compensation compared to peers, and percentage salary increases.

TABLE 5 Faculty Indicators

Student Outcomes

Graduation and retention rates are found on over 70 percent of the dashboards.  The most frequently used measure is the freshmen retention rate, followed closely by the six-year graduation rate.  Additional measures such as graduation and retention rates for specific populations (minorities, liberal-arts candidates, student athletes), as well as retention in specific degree programs (i.e. masters, doctoral, and graduate professional) appear, but less frequently.  Included in student outcomes are measures of student success relating to employment, further education, and passage rates on professional exams.  Other indicators include the number of degrees and certificates awarded at various levels.

TABLE 6 Student Outcomes

Student Engagement

Institutions are interested in the numbers of students who study abroad, are in honors programs, live on the campus, are engaged in research, and participate in service learning opportunities.

TABLE 7 Student Engagement


Academic information is composed of two groups: student-faculty contact and general academic information.  Those indicators vary considerably by institution and cover a broad area.  Some examples are: number of course sections offered, number of undergraduate majors in each school, ranking of the library by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), number of graduate assistantships, articulation and affiliation agreements with other institutions, and the number of online, video, and site-based courses.

TABLE 8 Academic Information

Physical Plant

Almost 38 percent of the dashboards contain indicators related to the institution’s physical plant.  Some of the measures of interest are plant investment rate, seat/stations utilization, space utilization, facilities condition index, network system and speed, and room occupancy.

TABLE 9 Physical Plant


Satisfaction is divided into three groups: student, employer/employee, and faculty.  Not surprisingly, measures of student satisfaction—overall and with varying aspects of the college experience—are the most prevalent. The latter includes satisfaction with instruction, support services, academic life, academic services, administrative services, student life, classrooms, and so on.  Additional indicators target satisfaction among special populations, such as minority students.

Far fewer institutions use employer/employee satisfaction metrics and faculty satisfaction metrics.  The former include measures of employee satisfaction with specific phases of the work environment.  The institutions concerned with faculty satisfaction elected to include measures that reflect faculty satisfaction with a variety of issues: salary and benefits, the quality of the student (both graduate and undergraduate), the institution as a place to work, and both clerical and technical support. As with students, additional indicators target satisfaction for special populations.

TABLE 10 Satisfaction


Almost 35 percent of the institutions are interested in data about research.  The most frequently used measure, an indicator of expenditures and total research support, is on almost one-quarter of the dashboards.  Other indicators used by more than one institution include: number of patents awarded, number of patent applications filed, royalty and license income, total externally supported research, number of income-generating licenses, number of grant submissions, grant revenue generated, and cost of a research assistant.

TABLE 11 Research

External Ratings

Finally, external ratings measures appear on 21 percent of the dashboards.  The group has six indicators, all related to US News and World Report rankings.  As might be expected, the most prevalent indicators are the institution’s tier and academic-reputation score, or “peer assessment score.”

TABLE 12 External Ratings