By Frank Swanzy Essien, Ph.D., and Michelle Van Noy, Ph.D.

Colleges and universities today are navigating the most complex set of pressures ever faced:

  • an increasingly volatile economy rocked by rapid technological changes
  • the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and
  • a looming demographic cliff leading to an enrollment crisis.

But a valuable new toolbox of data is helping some educators grapple with these challenges. They’re using Labor Market Information (LMI) to closely align programs with labor market demands—aiming to boost enrollment, retention, student success, and equitable outcomes.

Emerging sources of LMI data include state wage records data, real-time jobs data, job market analyses, student characteristics and outcomes, and existing degree programs.

This wealth of data makes LMI increasingly valuable to higher education leaders. But are they using this information effectively? Are they managing the influx of new data? How can LMI be integrated into a college’s day-to-day operations and broader strategy?

To answer these questions, Lumina Foundation, in partnership with researchers at Rutgers University’s Education and Employment Research Center (EERC), took a deep dive into how institutions can use LMI. Through surveys and case studies, we’ve explored the potential benefits afforded by this newfound access to robust and rigorous data, as well as the challenges of translating data into action. The findings offer insights for any institution looking to tap into this resource—and warnings for schools that aren’t ready to invest the time needed to make the most of it.

Not One-Size-Fits-All

One thing is clear: there are as many ways to use LMI as there are schools. Some colleges are learning to use LMI to improve the quality of their programs and match them more closely with employer needs. Others hope LMI can help address longstanding equity issues by preparing underserved students to enter the job market or addressing workforce and economic needs in historically underserved communities.

And it’s not just the use cases—it’s the data sources. No data source has everything wanted or needed by schools, so most institutions in our study use multiple LMI sources, including both private and public data.

Infrastructure Matters

For those institutions taking the plunge, the next step is to create the infrastructure of users, professional development, and policies to support it. Colleges and universities using LMI most effectively tend to be those building a strong ecosystem around it. They identify LMI champions from all parts of the institution, create new positions to integrate LMI into the bloodstream of the institution, and implement coaching and training to help would-be data users actually use the data.

Study participants also suggested that centralized approaches encourage more people to use LMI. Two-year colleges like Dallas College and Lansing Community College tended to prefer this approach, with a central office coordinating LMI use across the school.

What’s Next

We heard no shortage of challenges from the institutions in our study, from campus users’ data literacy and skepticism about the data to the inherent limits of its applicability, availability, and timeliness. But we also heard from schools founding LMI to be uniquely helpful — for instance, by making program reviews and decisions easier, uncovering economic and educational disparities, and even improving communication across campus as multiple departments tapped into shared LMI sources.

Most importantly, many colleges said the new access to LMI was helping them redefine student success. Instead of completed degrees or certificates, leaders focused more on students’ emerging careers, wages, promotion opportunities, and economic mobility. As traditional higher education faces increasingly sharp skepticism, LMI helps us aim beyond college to achieve students’ ultimate measure of success.

[Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., is strategy officer for research at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn beyond high school. For this study, he partnered with a team led by Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.]

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