Data Dominates Innovations Conference
Real-Time Labor Data Presents Challenges and Opportunities
BOSTON — Instincts can be invaluable, anecdotes illuminating. Graduation and retention rates can suggest what a college is doing right and what’s going wrong.
But in a time when colleges struggle to allocate limited resources, none of those can substitute for accurate, up-to-date data when colleges are deciding which programs to create, which ones to continue and which to discard.
“The economic trends move so quickly today,” said Larry Keen, president of Fayetteville Technical Community College (N.C.).
“The things that we relied on two years ago or five years ago are no longer reliable. Federal and state data collection can be six months to three years behind.”
So several years ago Keen’s college enlisted the help of Economic Model Specialists International (EMSI), a data analytics firm whose technological tools provide real-time labor data that can inform educational institutions, workforce planners and regional development agencies. The company is among a handful of data analytics firms contracting with colleges to guide programmatic decisions.
“This is good data to have, especially when you are doing strategic planning,” Keen said. “There’s no more gut feeling or shooting from the hip. It’s enhanced our ability to make wise decisions.”
Keen was speaking during a session at the 2015 Innovations conference sponsored by the League for Innovation in the Community College, which showcased new approaches and promising practices for enhancing the community college experience.
Much of the conference was devoted to the emerging field of data analytics and how colleges now awash in all kinds of data can use it to improve teaching and learning.
Fayetteville Tech now uses data to inform decisions of all types across its campuses: admissions, career counseling, grant writing and more.
“We are facing the same tough decisions, but now we have data to back up those tough decisions,” said Carl Mitchell, the college’s vice-president of human resources, workforce development and institutional effectiveness.
The college formerly relied on tools familiar to community college administrators, including surveys of local students and graduates, state surveys, federal data such as IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems), retention analyses and graduation rates.
But those tools can be unreliable due to volatile economic conditions, incomplete or conflicting data from government sources or incomplete data sets.
The tool the college now employs draws on 90 sources of independent data simultaneously. With just a few clicks of a computer mouse, users can access historic economic and occupational data, regional and state data and anticipated projections. EMSI’s Career Coach tool puts data in the hands of students and parents, Keen said.
Data was also central to the college’s redesign of its auto collision and repair program. The college found that its traditional auto body program, focused on refinishing, was not cutting it. Today’s cars contain sophisticated technologies and exotic materials and auto body technicians must grasp those and more. The new program offers nine different certifications designed to train auto collision specialists to work with new technologies in car design.
“The data has helped us do our job,” Keen said. “We really have a grand opportunity if we take advantage of it.”