Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Solverson uses analysis skills to advance university research

Natalie Solverson Natalie Solverson

After 10 years as a program analyst, admissions counselor and director of institutional research, 2005 alum Natalie Walleser Solverson describes herself as a storyteller.

"Institutional research offices provide information to support decision-making and planning processes across institutions of higher education," says Solverson, who has been director of institutional research at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse since January 2012. "It's really a lot of what we were taught to do at La Follette: gather data and information from various sources, analyze and synthesize what you found, and tell a short story to illustrate the main points. It is a great deal of storytelling, and I did not think that I'd be able to find a profession that combines the various elements of my winding career path in such a meaningful way."

One of the stories Solverson has told has been that of the UW System's first massive open online courses on college readiness math. "The MOOC evolved from a summer bridge program at UW–La Crosse that brought students placed into remedial mathematics up to the skill level that would allow them to enroll in credit-bearing mathematics courses," Solverson says. "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding to support the start-up of the MOOC itself as well as additional funding to support research about the MOOC."

Solverson used her La Follette School training to tell that story. "To conduct the analysis, we needed to extract and transform data from different sources, combine the sources in a meaningful way, and then begin the process of asking the questions about what we wanted to know against what the data could tell us about the students who participated in the MOOC," she says.

Solverson came to the La Follette School after graduating from Cornell University. While at La Follette, she used her background from having grown up on a farm in western Wisconsin while working as an agricultural marketing consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. "I coordinated operations for; researched and wrote policy memos for the governor's trade missions; and wrote monthly press releases and conducted radio interviews to promote department agri-marketing initiatives," says Solverson, whose team won a National Agri-Marketing Association Award for dairy industry promotion materials.

After she graduated from the La Follette School with a Master of Public Affairs degree, Solverson joined the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau as a program analyst. "I evaluated seven state government programs, including areas related to information technology, corrections, and higher education, to assess compliance with state law and legislative intent," Solverson says.

Those evaluations involved obtaining and analyzing data from complex financial systems; designing tables and graphs to display audit results; and writing, reviewing and editing chapters of audit reports, Solverson says, adding that she developed training materials for STATA statistical analysis software.

"That position challenged me to balance competing priorities to complete fieldwork and drafting process simultaneously for multiple reports," says Solverson.

As orientation coordinator and recruitment committee member for LAB, Solverson helped a few La Follette School alumni learn their positions. "When I started at LAB in June 2005 there was a significant cadre of Fighting Bobs at LAB, including Ben Monty and Jess Lathrop," Solverson says. "Allison Schill Carlson and I started at LAB the same day. The next year, Jennifer Gulig Klippel, Maureen Quinn and Molly Regan all began work at LAB. Jennifer Gulig Klippel ('06) and I became great friends working at LAB, and she was in my wedding."

In 2007, Solverson moved just outside La Crosse and started at the university as an admissions counselor. "I analyzed recruitment and yield data for my assigned territories, coordinated the scholarship award process for incoming new students, designed the recruitment publications, among the chief duty of recruiting new students," she says.

She would not have become director of institutional research without her La Follette School training, Solverson emphasizes. "The way we were taught to analyze problems through an economic lens and the practical applications of statistics and methods are what I do each day," she says. "I found PA 819, the course on advanced quantitative methods for public policy, particularly challenging. I remember sitting at the computer lab in the Social Sciences building struggling to open a data file in SAS. I went from that to writing SQL statements and analyzing data in SPSS and R on a regular basis."

Being a university administrator is a surprise for Solverson. "My plan when I started at La Follette was to work in a policy-related position within the agricultural industry or in a government organization directly related to agriculture," she says. "The term 'institutional research' was nowhere in my vocabulary, but I did always have a special interest in higher education and issues related to access and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where I am now is definitely a surprise to my 10-years-ago self, especially the fact that I live back in western Wisconsin. I married a dairy veterinarian, and I manage the finances for his business. We're also involved with our respective parents' farms, so I somehow managed to combine all my interests."

Solverson, who won an award from the Association for Institutional Research to attend its annual forum, notes that her position gets into a lot of work with regulatory and compliance activities such as states authorization for distance education and regional accreditation for the institution. "I can confidently state that my La Follette and LAB experience prepared me well to address those aspects of my job," she says.

"My undergraduate degree was in communication from a social science perspective, so I really had a strong foundation in writing, critical thinking and problem solving when I came to La Follette," she adds. "What the training at the La Follette School does is take those skills and teach you how to apply them in real-world contexts. The hands-on, practical training in data analysis has been critical to my success in my career. When I was at the La Follette School, the world was sitting on the edge of the big data revolution. The skills I learned and the confidence I gained in my abilities at La Follette have been invaluable to me in my professional life."

Natalie Solverson describes research results about the UW System College Readiness Math Massive Open
Online Course at the Desire2Learn FUSION Conference 2014.