Last month, President Obama revealed his FY 2017 budget proposal. While it has little chance of becoming law this year, the proposal exposes weaknesses in existing workforce data and reveals that better data is needed for continued economic growth. It proposes a $500 million investment in the Workforce Data Science and Innovation Fund with the goal of gaining a clearer, more comprehensive understanding of the current landscape of knowledge and skills, educational and training outcomes, and jobs.

Obama’s proposal isn’t clear on what additional data should be collected, but a handful of organizations have outlined what is necessary to advance the workforce. For example, the Workforce Data Quality Campaign has advocated for the consolidation of our traditional education, public benefits, employment, and labor market data and has emphasized the need for workforce program data. We agree—standard, widely-reported data on workforce education programs is the missing link in understanding how we advance workers’ skills. This data should specifically include information on non-traditional students, non-credit and certificate programs, and career and technical training.

While the proposal itself was not aimed at higher education, these categories of data could have a profound impact on colleges and universities’ strategies. As the main pathway for skilled labor to the workforce, institutions could leverage improved data to address skills gaps and align both traditional degrees and alternative credentials with market needs. Colleges and universities would be wise to follow the proposal as it develops and begin to consider the impact new data might have.

In anticipation of these changes, we have outlined several ways that expanded workforce data could improve institutional knowledge and strategies:

1. Gain Better Insight

New data could give colleges better insight into their student populations. A study of the Postsecondary Outcomes for Non-First-Time (NFT) Students shows that 60% of NFT students over the age of 24 who re-enrolled after a yearlong absence between 2008 and 2013 are no longer enrolled. This tendency to “stop out” or take longer to complete a degree is one of many clear characteristic differences between traditional and non-traditional students.

While efforts to analyze school performance and student outcomes are not uncommon (e.g., the Department of Education’s College Scorecard), these efforts largely ignore non-traditional students and programs. As of 2013, about 40% of all college and university enrollments were adults over 25. That is to say that 40% of enrolled students are excluded from many existing educational data sets. Given the key differences between traditional and adult learners, expanded workforce data requirements could drastically improve our understanding of higher education and outcomes by capturing data on the entire student population.

2. Identify New Academic Opportunities –
Alternative Credentials

Eduventures’ 2016 Adult Learner Survey examined the educational and enrollment preferences of a national sample of adult learners over the age of 25. Their responses reveal a significant interest in alternative credential programs: respondents expressed as much interest in enrolling in college in the next three years (79%) as in courses or programs that would advance their knowledge and skills but would not count toward a degree (76%).

New workforce insights would enable institutions to develop new learning pathways that meet the demand for non-degree pathways and best fit the non-traditional student trajectory. Not only could alternative credential programs help adult learners overcome their personal and social barriers to educational progress, but they could also equip students with the knowledge and skills the workforce needs and provide an additional pathway to employment.

3. Improve Course and Program Quality

In the same vein, improved workforce data would have a direct impact on the quality of existing education and training programs. Integrated data on formal education, workforce training, and labor and employment would give educational providers the evidence needed to update, add, or decommission courses and programs. Combining data from disparate sources would help educational providers assess their current contributions to the workforce and identify opportunities to improve curricula by focusing on the knowledge and skills employers want.

4. Increase Cross-Sector Collaboration

Such an exercise would also encourage partnerships between educational providers and employers. Colleges and universities should look to employers to inform curriculum development and investments in alternative credential programs to produce skilled workers. In turn, schools can provide employers with more information on the knowledge and skills students graduate with to inform hiring decisions. In this way, improved workforce data could fuel mutually beneficial relationships between employers and institutions to structure learning opportunities around real-time career outcomes.

5. Optimize Technology

Finally, new workforce data requirements would require colleges and universities to integrate their ERP systems to incorporate information on non-traditional students and alternative credential programs into the larger academic portfolio. Given that data is often scattered across campuses, administrators should now begin working to consolidate data in anticipation of new requirements. Not only would this holistic picture improve decision-making and workforce education programs, but it would also lessen the administrative burden of adhering to shifting state or federal data mandates.

EdTech companies will be critical contributors in this effort. Not only do they define the systems that store and share this type of data, but they also have the capacity to keep them up-to-date in light of changing regulations and growing data demands. In helping institutions navigate the evolving demands for student data, edtech providers should focus on accommodating often unstructured alternative credential programs.

We will continue to monitor new developments on the improvements to workforce data. In the meantime, learn how to use ERP solutions to streamline institutional data in this webinar hosted by Eduventures Principal Analyst Jeff Alderson.