A well-researched list of peer schools can serve an institution well. Over the past four years I have put quite a bit of work into identifying peer schools for various projects. I have also worked closely with Gary Hoag on an advancement and enrollment management peer study of evangelical schools within ATS. Recently, a number of people have asked me how I go about creating a list of peers and then how such a list can be used.

I decided to put the my process into two separate blog posts. This is the first of and I will talk about how to create a list of peer schools. The next post will focus on a few ways to use that list effectively. [NOTE: this process relates specifically to schools within the Association of Theological Schools].

Let’s begin by pointing out two specific reports ATS member schools receive each year. They are the Strategic Information Report, and the Institutional Peer Profile Report. The data is based on the Annual Report Forms which schools complete each fall. In addition to those reports, ATS publishes the Annual Data Tables, which consists of data about all schools within ATS.

So, let’s look at one way you can develop a list of peer schools. Yes, there are many ways to develop a list of peer institutions. We are going to illustrate one that is based the ATS Annual Data Tables.

A 3 Step Process

Step 1 – Get the Data

This is probably the easiest step. In order to develop the list, you will need the most recent ATS Annual Data Tables Report. Go to the ATS website and download it. You can find the 2011-2012 Data Tables here.

The Annual Data Tables is a report comprised of 5 sections and an appendix. The sections cover everything from institutional characteristics to enrollment to development and more. The section we will be referencing is Institutional Characteristics. Specially, we will be looking at Table 1.2 – Significant Institutional Characteristics of Each Member School. This table is divided into multiple columns: Name, Status, IUC (Independent, University-Related, College-Related), Race, Prov./State, Denom (Denomination), Expenditures (which is broken down into Education & General and Total), Long-term investments, Faculty (which is broken down into headcount and FTE), Enrollment (divided into headcount and FTE), and MDiv tuition and fees. Each column can be useful when creating your list of peers. Now that we have the data, let’s think about why we are creating this list.

Step 2 – Which Set of Peers?

Step two is a bit more difficult and should involve multiple conversations among the administrators at your institution. Each institution has many different sets of peers. The ways in which you plan to use the data you gather about your peers should impact the set of peers create.  Here are five different sets of peers and how your school might use them.

Set #1: Type of School
Within ATS there are really about three different types of Schools: Independent, University-Related, and College-Related. Independent schools are freestanding schools while “related” schools are part of a college or university. Therefore your school falls into a wide set of peers based upon its type. For instance, if your school is independent then you have something in common with other independent schools. This would be based on the “IUC” column in the data tables.

Uses: A set of peers based on school type can be helpful for a number of reasons. After defining the list, you could look at how your peers structure their institutions, which information management systems they use for various functions of the seminary, how they have organized their internal processes, and the various roles of their staff. It is helpful to compare such things to schools of similar types because each of these items varies greatly between independent and related schools.

Notes: It is probably good to note that, for the most part, it is helpful for most lists of peers to be based on schools of a similar type. There are exceptions (like comparing schools in the same geographic region), but type of school is always a good place to start.

Set #2: Budget Size
A second set of peers could be based on budget size. Let’s say your organization has expenditures of around $4 million. You can use the Data Tables to find a set of schools with a budget similar to yours. This would be based on the “Expenditures” column in the data tables.

Uses: A set of peers based on budget size is helpful for comparing faculty and staff salaries or creating salary benchmarks. In addition, you can compare budget allocations and revenue streams.  However, one must note the changes in cost of living relative to various locations.

Notes: It is important to note that budget size and composition can be dramatically impacted by two things. First, a budget for a “related” school is going to look much different than that of an “independent” school. For that reason, it may be good to use “budget size” after identifying schools of a similar type (Set #1). Also, the size of a school’s endowment will impact the ways in which a budget is composed. For instance, a “related” school with an endowment of $3 million will look much different than an “independent” school with an endowment of $25 million.

Set #3: Enrollment Size
A third set of peers could be based on enrollment size. Let’s say your school has a total headcount of 160 students and an FTE of 65. You can use the “Enrollment” column to find schools that have a headcount similar to yours.

Uses: A set of peers based on enrollment size is useful for looking at program types, staff/faculty size, and organizational structure. Maybe your school is looking to change something in way it handles course scheduling. Data about another school with similar levels of enrollment is a great place to start.

Notes: As with budget size and type, it is important to note which type of school you are dealing with. Faculty sizes at a school with a large endowment or at schools which are related to a university will differ than those at independent schools – even if the headcount is similar. Also, it is important to note where a school is located.

Set #4: Aspirational
A fourth set of peers could be a set of schools which are achieving something your institution would like to achieve. This set of schools may not be based on budget, enrollment size, or type. It may simply be a list of schools with exemplary performance in a specific area.

Uses: An aspirational set of peers can be very useful, but there are a few things for which it probably shouldn’t be used. For instance, it may not be helpful to compare staff and faculty salaries to a set of schools much larger or differently structured than your school.

Set #5: Ecclesial Family
A final set of peers would be based on Ecclesial family. This data is not included on the Annual Data Tables, but it a good “final” step in the creation of a list of peers. After narrowing your list of peer schools down to about 20, you can begin to look at whether those schools are Evangelical, Roman Catholic, or Main Line/Denominational schools. This is completed by doing a little research online. The “Denom” title on the data tables can be used to identify the Roman Catholic/Orthodox churches, but I would encourage you to research schools who are main line or evangelical.

Uses: A set of peers based on ecclesial family is useful for looking at revenue streams, sources of giving and enrollment size. For instance, let’s say you are an evangelical school which is very dependent upon tuition. You may be able to find a set of peers which is similarly dependent upon tuition.

Notes: Ecclesial family is a good last step because it is helpful, but not required on every set of peers. Also, it takes some guessing at times because you have to do research.

Step 3 – Create the Final Set

After you have the data tables and have decided how you are going to use the list, you can begin creating the list. Here is one way to approach the process. For this example, let’s say our school is an evangelical school with about 200 total students. Our budget is about $4 million and we are an independent school. We want a set of peers to which we can compare program design and budget allocations. Based on conversations, our leadership team thinks it would be best to have a set of peers with a similar budget size who are also evangelical and independent.

First, we would sort the data table by budget size and look for schools that have a similar budget size. Next, we would create a subset which included only independent schools (I in the IUC column). Finally, we would take this subset and research them to find out which are evangelical schools.

Next week we will look at how we can use this list of schools to educate our board, enhance our institution, and develop peer-learning relationships for the advancement of the kingdom.