Community Colleges

Using Labor Market Data to Improve Student Success

January 15, 2013  • Joshua Wyner

Over the past year, we have learned a lot about the relationship between college graduates’ employment and earnings outcomes on the one hand, and the degrees they earn and colleges they attend on the other. Federal “gainful employment” reports, new data out of Tennessee and Virginia on the earning power of recent graduates in those states, and studies from Georgetown University all point to the same conclusion: what students choose to study matters, as does the college they select to deliver that education.

It is not as though we didn’t know any of this before. Long-available Bureau of Labor Statistics data show, for example, that radiation therapists with associates’ degrees earn (on average) $75,000 per year, while two-year graduates who become veterinary technicians earn an average of only $30,000. And many initiatives over the past decade, including the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, have shown wide institutional variation in graduation rates – even among similar colleges with similar student bodies.

What is new about recent labor market data releases is that they show just how variable college and program outcomes can be for graduates. But publishing this information alone is different than making sure it is put to good use. The fact is many colleges don’t even know this information exists let alone how to access it. Most of our nation’s higher education institutions are just now beginning to think about how to use labor market data to ensure stronger outcomes for every graduate. As institutions that deliver certificates tied to specific jobs, community colleges have a particular interest in doing so.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the best examples of labor market data use in higher education can be found in community colleges. Nor should we be surprised to see community colleges – including those in California and New York – clamoring for their states to provide them greater access employment and earnings information about their graduates.

Today, Aspen Institute College Excellence Program releases a guide designed to advance the use of labor market data among community colleges. “Using Labor Market Data to Improve Student Success” offers concrete examples of how five community colleges have used labor market data to assess educational programs, better align them with employment opportunities, and inform students. In addition, the guide describes six specific data sources that colleges can access today to understand relevant labor market demands as well as the employment/earning outcomes of their graduates.

In the months and years ahead, ever increasing amounts of employment and earnings data will add to what we know about the value of a college education. Our hope is that this guide will help colleges understand this data, not just to answer inquiries from the press or legislators, but to assess and improve the quality of education they are providing students.

Some argue that current labor market data are imperfect, and they are right. Many recent analyses, for example, fail to fully reflect the long-term value of liberal arts degrees. Our expectation is that this information will get better over time. But even today’s employment and earnings information tells colleges something important about how the quality of the education they provide — namely, how well it is setting students up for success after they graduate. Surely, that is something every college cares about and will inspire even greater use of labor market information to improve student success in the years to come.