The Importance of Benchmarking Data Against Peers in Higher Education


In the world of higher education, data is more than just numbers on a spreadsheet—it is a powerful tool for informed decision-making. Administrators, faculty, and stakeholders can benefit immensely from understanding how their institution compares to peer institutions. That is where benchmarking comes into play as it helps to evaluate where an institution stands in terms of performance, quality, and value.

Why Benchmarking Matters

  1. Quality Assurance: Benchmarking can serve as a form of external quality assurance. When institutions evaluate their programs against those of their peers, they can identify areas where they exceed, meet, or fall short of industry standards.
  2. Strategic Planning: Data-driven insights from benchmarking help in shaping the long-term goals of an institution. Whether it is faculty-to-student ratios, graduation rates, or research funding, knowing how you fare compared to peers can guide future strategies.
  3. Accountability: Benchmarking results can be shared with internal and external stakeholders. This fosters a culture of transparency and accountability, as everyone can see how the institution measures up against similar entities.

Challenges in Benchmarking

While benchmarking is beneficial, it is not without its challenges. Data must be accurate and comparable, requiring standardized definitions and methodologies. There is also the risk of misinterpretation, especially when comparing institutions with significant differences in mission or demographic which means selecting the right peer group is crucial.  For example, do we compare ourselves solely to other Carnegie R2 institutions?  To only our SREB peers?  To only our HEPC-designated peers?  Or to only public institutions in West Virginia?  The answer depends on the question being asked, but with any comparison, the peer group needs to be identified and defined clearly.

Case Analysis: Benchmarking at Marshall University

Let’s consider the role of benchmarking in a specific example. As a comprehensive public research university, we might choose to compare ourselves against similar institutions in the areas of research funding, student success rates, and faculty compensation. Our Institutional Research and Planning office would likely spearhead this effort, ensuring that the data used is both relevant and robust.  In only one area, total enrollment, we fall in the 4th decile amongst all R2s, 6th decile when compared to our SREB peers, and 3rd decile when compared to our HEPC peers.  Which is the correct comparison group?  When simply comparing total enrollment, it probably does not matter since other factors are not being taken into consideration (location, history, type of school, etc.), but it matters what the next question being asked is if you are going to compare the rankings, and that is where my office comes into play with helping provide not only data but context to why the benchmarking group has been selected and why it is important.


Benchmarking is not just a buzzword as it is a crucial practice for institutions aiming for excellence. The data and more importantly insights garnered from benchmarking efforts can provide invaluable understandings, fueling both short-term initiatives and long-term planning. Given its importance, it is a practice well worth investing in, both in terms of time and resources. If you are as passionate about data as I am, you will agree that benchmarking is not just a nice-to-have, but it is a must-have/must-go-to for higher education institutions looking to excel.

Know thyself and know thy peers, through data!

Brian M. Morgan
Chief Data Officer, Marshall University

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