Making the Most of Labor Market Data for Academic Decision Support
The Provost’s Office at West Virginia University has used labor market data for the past five years (beginning in 2018). We began by simply looking at occupational outlooks associated with specific CIP codes as an easy and consistent way to help faculty meet a requirement in the curriculum proposal process for new academic programs.
We immediately began to see other possible uses, and labor market data quickly became an essential tool for addressing a range of institutional questions across a range of stakeholders. Perhaps as important, we discovered that providing faculty and academic leaders access to labor market data alongside institutional data led to much more engaged thinking and discussion around academic programs, the competitive market and demand for both academic programs and associated occupations.
No previous experience or training is needed to use labor market data, making it easy for anyone to acquire deeper insights into the professional world graduates are entering, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence and conjecture. Faculty and academic leadership from departments to the Provost’s Office look not just at occupational demand but also at salaries, typical education level for entry, skills needed and industries in which specific occupations are found.
What makes this possible is the availability of a robust, affordable and easy-to-use data platform, pulling from many public (e.g., BLS, ACS, NCES) and private sources, allowing us to quickly and easily connect academic programs to occupations and occupations to industries, from the local to the national level.
From the beginning, we have been committed to providing faculty and academic leaders with broad access to labor market data because of their roles in curricular decision-making. Like an investment portfolio, West Virginia University’s academic portfolio is not a static collection of programs. Academic leaders are continually refining and adjusting it by developing new programs, revising (sometimes completely re-envisioning) existing programs and sunsetting programs that no longer meet student demand or societal needs.
All three activities are accomplished through established institutional processes carried out by faculty and academic leaders that are informed by (not determined by) labor market data. Labor market data can be used as one tool in the analytic toolbox; no decisions about academic programs are made on labor market data alone. The need to continually monitor and alter our academic portfolio has emerged in a higher ed landscape in which students and their families increasingly expect a degree to lead directly to a career and stakeholders continue to call for accountability.
Also, nearly all except elite institutions are facing budgetary pressures related to enrollment declines, requiring more strategic decisions closely aligned with state and regional workforce needs. The continual monitoring of the institution’s academic portfolio makes it possible to be responsive to changes in demographics, industry needs and student demands.
Demand for bachelor’s degrees has remained strong. Nationally, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually increased every year between 2010 and 2021, from 1.7 million in 2010 to 2.2 million in 2012.[i] And with good reason, given that the economic advantage of having a degree remains at just about an all-time high (when compared to earnings of Americans with only a high school diploma), according to Ben Wildavsky, writing for the New York Times[ii] (among others).
West Virginia and West Virginia University mirrored that trend, with 48% and 13% respective increases in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded during the same time period, and the value of a West Virginia University degree is strong. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, West Virginia University has a higher earnings-to-price ratio than all but five of the nearly 40 R1 land-grant universities.[iii]
Increasingly, our academic portfolio doesn’t just contain traditional associate, bachelor’s, master’s and various doctoral degrees. The demand for certificates, badges and other non-degree credentials is expected to continue.[iv] Nearly a quarter of a million West Virginians have some college but no degree,[v] and many of them may be interested in either completing a degree or earning some type of non-degree credential.
West Virginia University is certainly not abandoning traditional degree programs for other types of postsecondary credentials, but we are exploring non-degree credentials that might be beneficial to add to our academic portfolio. At West Virginia University (and probably many other institutions), budget challenges and greater awareness of those challenges due to current and projected enrollment declines have brought a realization of the need to be deliberate and mission-focused in managing our portfolio of academic programs (both degree and non-degree programs) and diligent in improving existing programs. Labor market data can help identify occupational areas and skills to around which to plan certain curricular changes.
Among the findings of a recent study conducted by researchers at the Rutgers University Education and Employment Research Center on the use of labor market information by postsecondary institutions were that such use is increasing among both two-year and four-year institutions and that different types of institutions use labor market information differently.[vi] Two-year institutions are focused more than four-year institutions on workforce development and engagement with external partners.
It is not surprising then that more two-year institutions use labor market information to support career pathways and workforce development activities, reflecting the alignment of their academic programs and the regional labor market. Four-year institutions have fewer academic programs that teach to the job, but career-focused courses of study have been a part of higher education in the U.S. going back at least as far as the Morrill Act of 1862 establishing land-grant colleges. Citing Frederick Rudolph, Derek Bok has made the case that undergraduate education in the U.S. has always had a practical, vocational aspect.[vii]
Here are a few suggestions to get started with using labor market data for institutional academic decision support:
- Begin by conducting at least an informal needs analysis. Who is likely to need (or want) access to labor market data and for what purpose(s)?
- Explore the commercial data platforms currently available and identify the one that best fits the institution’s context, needs and resources.
- Decide on the best way to make the data available to members of the campus community, whether by identifying and training power users in each academic unit, acquiring an enterprise license through which any member of the institution can gain access, running data requests through a central office or other.
- Determine users’ professional development needs and confirm that resources (human and others) can be dedicated to serving those needs.
- Make sure the labor market data obtained connects to institutional processes to ensure that it is meaningfully brought into strategic decision-making.
Given the population that West Virginia University serves and the state’s industry profile, the shifting demand for postsecondary educational opportunities, our particular institutional context and our students’ and society’s needs, the questions we continually need to address are: How do we make wise and responsible decisions about the contents of our academic portfolio? And how do we “contain our costs while improving our quality,”[viii] as West Virginia University’s president has said we must do?
Including labor market data with other types of external data and institutional data will result in better decision-making about which programs to support with new or additional resources and greater engagement by faculty and academic leaders, both of which will help us address institutional challenges related to costs, quality and relevance. West Virginia University uses labor market data for academic decision support because we can’t afford not to.
[i] Source: IPEDS
[ii] Opinion: College Degrees Still Matter In the Job Market. “Let’s Stop Pretending College Degrees Don’t Matter,” August 21, 2023.
[iv] See, for example, A. Levine and S. Van Pelt (2021), The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
[v] 2021 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau
[vii] D. Bok (2006), Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[viii] West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, addressing Faculty Senate, August 7, 2023.