More colleges turn to labor market data—but efforts are often ad hoc

A new study out of Rutgers University finds that while most colleges now use labor market data in some way, institutional support is often lacking.

Most colleges use labor market data to inform at least aspects of their work, but institutional support—in the form of funds, staff, and clear policies—is often lacking, according to a new report from the Education & Employment Research Center at Rutgers University.

The big idea: That means colleges’ efforts to understand and respond to the labor market are often ad hoc. 

  • Only 17% of respondents said their institution had clear policies or practices around using labor market data, and professional development and dedicated staff were also relatively rare.
  • Just 20% of institutions were capable of doing comprehensive collection and analysis, though a plurality did some additional analysis beyond required reporting.

The stakes are high, as both seismic shifts in the economy and student demand are forcing colleges to pay more attention to sought-after skills and the job market. 

“Interest in these data is rising along with increased emphasis in higher education on making better linkages to careers for students,” says Michelle Van Noy, director of the center and a co-author of the report.

Community Colleges Out Front

Two-year institutions led the way in using labor market data and providing institutional support for that work across almost every major category the researchers looked at. That speaks to both community colleges’ longstanding workforce missions and the fact that federal, state, and private funding in that sector often requires more reporting on job alignment than it does in the four-year sector.

Federal policy, in particular the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, has had a much bigger impact on community colleges’ data use than the researchers anticipated. 

“We expected to see some difference between two-year and four-year colleges, but the ways in which Perkins has driven labor market information use in one sector of higher education was noteworthy,” says Monica Reid Kerrigan, a co-author of the report and a professor of educational leadership, administration, and research at Rowan University. 

Among four-years, the researchers found, there is both less external pressure to use labor market data and more internal resistance.

The Details: The findings come from a survey of more than 400 college representatives, mostly in senior administrative roles, at both two-year and four-year institutions, as well as deeper interviews with 10 case study institutions.

  • In trying to understand the labor market, institutions were most likely to use longstanding federal and state data, but more than three-quarters also used regional data.
  • Only half used vendor data, with two-year colleges most likely to do so.

Participants, especially at community colleges, had significant concerns about both the relevance and timeliness of the data available to them, as well as the limited guidance on how best to use it. “Data often reflects large workforce areas or by state,” one wrote. “It is not always reflective of the rural community in which we operate.”

Another was more blunt: “Info is not available specific to our needs.”

Leaders and Laggards

Colleges, of course, are not monoliths—with different functions using data to varying degrees. 

  • Labor market data plays a role in new program development at 9 in 10 colleges surveyed, and in an open-ended question, more than half of participants said that those data had improved the development process.
  • Likewise, three quarters of colleges now use economic data in program reviews and not just in a perfunctory way.

For example, one participant at a four-year institution said that it recently eliminated 13 programs due to declining market trends or poor post-graduation outcomes. Others have shortened review cycles to look at data annually and instituted more centralized processes.

“Previously, it was very faculty driven, sort of like, ‘I’m going to review my own program and tell you how well I think it’s aligned with the labor market,’” one participant said. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Southern New Hampshire University has gone even further, with one of the most extensive skills-mapping efforts the researchers found. 

“There is an important link between skills and the workforce,” says Kim Bogle Jubinville, the university’s senior vice president and chief academic officer. “Employers understand the terminology of skills, and adding a framework of skills within our credit courses and degrees provides a level of transparency and clarity.”

The university also increasingly starts with skills, or competencies, in designing programs—such as its experiential learning program for health nursing and health professions.  

Beyond program development, the researchers found, other critical functions are still in a nascent stage of using economic data. 

  • Just 44% of institutions use labor market data in advising, and when they do, it’s most often left up to individual counselors, the research found.

Career development centers are just beginning to incorporate such data into their work. Standouts, like Lurleen B. Wallace Community College and Lansing Community College, are using labor market data to help students connect career interests to jobs or to drive home the importance of getting hands-on experience. But, in general, interviewees talked about how few best practices exist.

One likely reason, Reid Kerrigan says, is the silos that exist within higher education. Academic and career advising often use entirely different software than that used by institutional research and the central administration, so they don’t have access to the same types of data. And institution-wide conversations about the labor market tend to focus on academic programming and strategy.

Looking Forward

Changing that would require a deliberate effort by colleges to bring disparate departments together to focus on economic data and student outcomes. Funders and policymakers also might be able to move the needle, the researchers say, by pushing for data-informed advising as part of existing career pathways work or state P20 data initiatives.

Jobs and wage data should also factor more prominently in discussions of equity in higher education, Van Noy says. Just 28% of institutions currently use labor market data to understand how different groups of students fare—despite an increasing focus on equity and economic mobility.

“This is at the heart of understanding equitable outcomes,” she says.

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