Three Seasons of IPEDS infographic

IPEDS 2020-21: Definitive Guide for Senior Leaders

As a higher education administrator, your plate is always full. And those are the good days. As a senior leader, you know your institution’s IPEDS reports and data submissions are important. Very important. But you don’t have time to be an IPEDS expert. And the IEHE doesn’t think you should have to. So, we’ve developed the IPEDS 2020-21: Definitive Guide for Senior Leaders.

Our guide:Image of a calendar, pencil and to-do list for IPEDS planning

  • Summarizes key information about IPEDS
  • Explains key changes in the IPEDS surveys for the 2020-2021 reporting year
  • Offers strategies for overseeing the office that coordinates your institution’s IPEDS reporting
  • Poses five questions senior leaders should ask their IPEDS keyholder for each IPEDS submission
  • Provides free resources and training for your IPEDS keyholder

Because we know your time is limited, we’ve organized the guide into sections. The buttons across the top of the IPEDS 2020-21: Definitive Guide for Senior Leaders allow you to skip around to the sections you need.

  • Brief Primer on IPEDS for Senior Leaders
  • Changes for IPEDS 2020-2021
  • Overseeing the IPEDS Submission
  • Five Questions to Ask Your IPEDS keyholder
  • Resources and Training

The IPEDS 2020-21 Definitive Guide has been developed by IEHE’s own IPEDS expert – Kristina Powers – who has served as a national IPEDS Educator for over a decade. In this role, Kristina delivers IPEDS workshops across the country and online, and develops new curricula in cooperation with IPEDS and the Association for Institutional Research.


This section of the IPEDS 2020-21 Definitive Guide will give you a brief overview of IPEDS and what it does.

What is IPEDS? What does it stand for?

IPEDS stands for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is part of the National Center for Education Statistics

Which institutions participate in IPEDS?

All U.S. institutions who have agreed to administer federal financial aid are required to submit institutional data to IPEDS. International institutions do not participate. A small number of institutions that do not administer federal financial aid elect to participate, though they are not mandated to do so.

What are the benefits of participating in IPEDS?

As part of an institution’s ability to administer federal financial aid, accurate and timely participation is required. Participation in IPEDS data collection allows easy access to comparison/benchmarking data – for free!!!

When are IPEDS 2020-21 reports completed?

Up to 12 IPEDS reports are submitted by institutional keyholders over the course of the year. [Some surveys will not apply to some institutions. Institutions will only see the surveys they are required to submit.]

Three Seasons of IPEDS infographic

For the IPEDS 2020-21 submission, three are submitted in Fall (between September 2 and October 14):

  1. Institutional Characteristics
  2. Completions
  3. 12-month Enrollment

Five are submitted in Winter (between December 7 and February 7):

  1. Student Financial Aid
  2. Graduation Rates
  3. 200% Graduation Rates
  4. Admissions
  5. Outcome Measures

Four are submitted in Spring (between December 11 and April 8):

  1. Fall Enrollment
  2. Finance
  3. Human Resources
  4. Academic Libraries

What is an IPEDS Keyholder?

Each institution has a designated IPEDS keyholder. This person coordinates IPEDS report submissions and is the primary point of contact with IPEDS. This is similar to an accreditation liaison position. Typically, IPEDS keyholders are in institutional research, institutional effectiveness, or registrar offices. However, anyone that the President/CEO designates can be the IPEDS keyholder.

While the majority of the IPEDS survey items are consistent across years, there are occasionally changes, which can vary from minor to significant. The great news – IPEDS provides a listing of all changes each year and offers and “estimated burden” for each (no change, minimal, moderate, or significant). Leaders and keyholders can quickly identify the significance of each change.

Some changes only impact select institution types, (e.g., two-year institutions, graduate institutions, clock-hour institutions).

This reporting year, 2020-2021 – IPEDS has 14 changes across six surveys, one changes to the definitions and instructions and one change to classification of instructional programs. is a high-level overview. The number of changes in the 2020-21 surveys are show below with the changes to their estimated burden. Starting early on surveys that have minimal or moderate changes as well as alerting those involved in those surveys to review the detailed changes can make incorporating the changes a smoother process. You (and your IPEDS keyholder) can check out the details:

Updated Table of IPEDS Changes for 2020-21 (August 16, 2020)

As a senior administrator, you likely oversee your institution’s IPEDS 2020-21 submission in some way, shape, or form. Perhaps the IPEDS keyholder reports to you. Or maybe someone asked questions about the public IPEDS data, prompting you to dig in more. What the ever the reason may be, senior level involvement in the IPEDS submissions process helps to ensure accurate and timely data.

Your Role in IPEDS 2020-21 Data Submission

Even IPEDS views senior leaders having a role in the data submission by:

  • Giving the responsibility for selecting an IPEDS keyholder to the President/CEO
  • Emailing the President/CEO:
    • at the beginning of the IPEDS season as a reminder the cycle is beginning soon.
    • if the IPEDS Keyholder submits their reports at least two weeks before the due date. This is done to thank the institution for working ahead of schedule.
    • if the institution hasn’t started the survey two weeks before the deadline.
    • if the institution is late in its submission. [You want to avoid this one]
    • to provide a copy of the institution’s Data Feedback Report – which is a collection of key metrics using IPEDS data. [This is courtesy of IPEDS and doesn’t cost a thing!]

Important things to consider

  • Mark your calendar – Have the IPEDS Keyholder send you calendar invites as reminders of key due dates for IPEDS. These won’t be meetings – just a heads up that the IPEDS surveys are coming due soon.
  • Remember – it takes a village (or a campus) – No one can complete all of the IPEDS surveys on their own. Some surveys are completed by individual departments, such as finance or human resources. Others require a joint effort with several people contributing various pieces and parts that the IPEDS keyholder assembles into one report.
  • Support an IPEDS Kick-off meeting each year or season – Given all of the places that IPEDS data shows up in the public, it is important that all contributors (described in the bullet above) understand the importance of the IPEDS submission and its accuracy. A kick-off meeting can be short – but make it powerful. It can include reminding people of key IPEDS due dates, discussing the changes to IPEDS surveys for the season, discussing any institutional changes that may impact reporting, as well as the review process.
  • Conduct an IPEDS Report Review – Prior to submission, review the draft report using the PDF output format downloaded through the IPEDS portal. This should be done by someone other than the primary report creator. A fresh set of eyes is definitely needed to ensure accurate reporting. The reviewer(s) should also be generally knowledgeable on the topic. For example, the Associate Provost could review the Academic Libraries submission to be sure nothing stands out as odd.
  • Review the Planning Document for Senior Leaders – It is hard to keep all of the surveys straight. Who is providing the information? Who should review it? And when is it all due? Wouldn’t it be nice to have one document that shows all of that? We’ve developed a template that you can customize for your institution. Your IPEDS keyholder can complete the template plan and share it with the team the annual IPEDS kickoff meeting. This way, everyone knows who is doing what. More importantly – you can easily see if there are any holes in the planning. Maybe a department/person is being used too much or too little, or the responsibly person leaves the institution temporarily or permanently, or broader organizational changes shift office responsibilities.

And – it is a handy reference document. You can download the Excel editable IPEDS Planning document (pictured).

Image of the IPEDS calendar-Planning Guide for Senior Leaders

So, you’ve developed a great plan based on the information in the IPEDS Definitive Guide. And you’ve identified talented people on your team who can use their expertise to provide information for the IPEDS reports. You’ve established internal deadlines with some wiggle room to adjust for unexpected circumstances – and still meet the IPEDS deadline.

And then you get an email with the PDFs of the draft IPEDS report submissions. It’s likely 100+ pages of data and information fun. How will you possibly catch any issues, much less all of them?

Image of Painted Question Mark Symbolizing the five IPEDS questionsHere are a few questions to consider or for the folks providing the information.

  1. What changes in methodology should I be aware of? Changes in the methodology can sometimes result in significant differences in data reported from one year to the next.
  2. When these data become public in College Navigator – what will an external critic notice as being different/changing? If the institution’s reported numbers are dramatically different from previous years, you’ll want to know why. Dramatic changes in institutional results are bound to come up in meetings with internal or external stakeholders. So, you need to have a clear understanding of the differences an explanation for them.
  3. Does the IPEDS keyholder have all of the back-up documentation to support the submissions? If not, who does have that information? It’s important that your institution have careful records of the IPEDS submission supporting documents. The keyholder should be the repository of these records, so that they are easily accessible should any questions arise.
  4. What are three “Points of Pride” and three “Numbers to Notice” that the Cabinet should be aware of based on the surveys for the term/season? If your institution has improved on some measure – say retention or graduation rates – you want to tell the world about it, right?! Make sure you have identified all the good news in your IPEDS data so that you can use that in your promotional materials.
  5. What questions should we be asking about these data, but haven’t? The IPEDS keyholder and others who work with your institutional data know it inside and out. They work with these metrics every day. Instead of asking for the same metrics year after year, the savvy college president will ask their data specialist what else can be gleaned from the data.

You can help support your institution’s IPEDS keyholder’s professional development and keeping up on IPEDS changes through free resources. The IPEDS Training Center offers a variety of options for learning more about the IPEDS reporting process. These free resources can be valuable to institutional staff tasked with these responsibilities.

Video Tutorials – just-in-time training videos provide content in small segments to assist with specific areas of reporting and data tool use.

Face-to-Face Workshops – intensive, short-term professional development to increase skills and ​knowledge on a variety of IPEDS topics with individual instruction.

Online Keyholder Courses – mentor-supported online courses which require approximately 10-12 hours of study within a one-month period.

NCES Data Institute – offers an intensive introduction to NCES datasets and research methodologies using large-scale national data sources.

IPEDS Educators – experienced IPEDS users deliver a curriculum that takes a broad view of IPEDS data to assure the quality of​ the submission of these data and improve the skills of those using these data.

Additional IPEDS Resources – a variety of links to other helpful external resources are available on through the Training Center, as well.


The IPEDS Finance User Guide developed by the Center on Education Data and Policy is a valuable resource for those tasked with managing the IPEFS Finance Surveys.

Image of Laptop and books - maybe prepping for IPEDS training

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.