Positioning Academic Programs for Success with Labor Market Insight

Published on Jun 16, 2023

Written by Remie Verougstraete

It’s no secret that many learners are motivated by the prospect of economic mobility and professional success. From incoming freshmen to working adults, people see higher education as a pathway to good work — work that’s fulfilling and meets their financial needs. 

While higher education shouldn’t be reduced to mere career preparation, a genuinely learner-centered model must not neglect students’ career concerns either. In fact, there’s good reason for educators to pursue market alignment as a positive good (not just a necessary evil).

Stronger, more visible alignment between academic programs and career pathways can generate a host of benefits, from strengthening enrollment and retention, to increasing engagement in the classroom, to producing better career outcomes that fuel a growing and loyal alumni network. In other words, stronger alignment positions programs for holistic success.

Whether you’re launching new programs or seeking to reinvigorate existing ones, labor market insight is an essential tool for strengthening the connection between programs and careers. Like any tool though, it’s all about how you use it. Here are three steps you can take to position programs for success, with the help of labor market insight:

1) Assess alignment

Labor market data can be organized as a pyramid, from broad to specific.The first step is getting clarity on how your current program portfolio aligns with economic trends in your region. You can start by using a CIP-to-SOC crosswalk, like the one provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, to identify which occupations are most relevant for each academic program. Note however that the NCES says their crosswalk “is not based on actual empirical data,” so you may want to modify it based on your own real-world experience and observations.

This program-to-occupation mapping lays the groundwork, but the real “assessment” happens when you compare institutional data (like program enrollments and completions) to external market data (like job growth in related occupations and median wages). This can illuminate gaps where the economy is underserved, signaling an opportunity for growth and expansion of programs that are aligned to that need.

To go a step further, you can look at how occupations translate into specific, real-world job titles used by employers in your region. Employer job postings are a rich source of what’s sometimes called “real-time” labor market information, because it’s more precise and up to date than “traditional” labor market information, like the kind that comes from government agencies.

Lastly, the rising tide of interest in skills-based hiring (and corresponding interest in skills-based education) makes it increasingly important to evaluate alignment at the skill level as well. Skills-based analysis has several unique advantages for education providers, chief among them the ability to make a direct, apples-to-apples comparison of what’s taught in courses to what’s sought by employers in the labor market.

2) Improve alignment

The next critical step is to make sure your assessment doesn’t just sit on a shelf (metaphorically, or literally). It’s time to implement.

It’s usually best to balance short-term “quick wins” with the kind of long-term strategic shifts that probably won’t produce measurable results for a few years (e.g. launching a whole new degree program). For example:

  • Short-term quick wins might include adjusting course descriptions and syllabi to better articulate the career-relevant skills faculty already teach. This can make the career-relevance and value of those courses more transparent to students and equip faculty to engage learners by calling out and reinforcing those connections in the classroom.

  • Looking a little farther out, you can explore ways to modify curriculum, or even repackage existing courses into more targeted, career-aligned microcredentials. This is where a “sought skills vs. taught skills” analysis can be especially useful. It can inform development of sub-degree credentials (which are quicker to develop and deploy, in true agile fashion) that deliver meaningful increments of “just-in-time” value to learners, especially working adults.

  • Long-term, your program-to-occupation research can guide decisions about which programs to expand (by hiring additional faculty or investing in new facilities and equipment), and which new programs to launch. By aligning growth to labor market gaps, you ensure that your institution is positioned as a vital part of your region’s economic ecosystem, while also positioning your graduates for rewarding work in in-demand career areas. Combined with real-time data on employers who are hiring in your region, this can also guide outreach to start or strengthen industry partnerships.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but it’s also essential to make this a collaborative step. For best results, disseminate the data widely to stakeholders and leaders across campus, including academic leaders and faculty. Their expertise, feedback, and buy-in will be essential to enacting meaningful change.

3) Demonstrate alignment

Once you’ve achieved (or validated) market alignment, it’s time to activate that alignment by making it public and transparent. For example, in the always-online world we live in, your website is arguably the most important marketing and recruitment asset you have. You can capitalize on this by adding relevant career data directly to academic program pages

This can be as simple as including a list of related occupations for each program. Or you can get more specific by listing relevant employers and the actual job titles they’re hiring for. Estimated wage data can also be valuable, but you’ll want to make sure it’s well-labeled so students have realistic expectations (e.g. is it 25th percentile salary? Median? National wage or specific to their state/region? Etc.)

And finally, make use of whatever data you have on alumni career pathways to demonstrate the effectiveness of your programs. This data has the added benefit of showcasing your alumni network, which can serve both current students looking for connections, or prospective students looking for confidence to enroll.

Regardless of how you do it, the goal is to eliminate the gap between academic exploration and career exploration. This helps learners gain the confidence and clarity they need to enroll, while increasing the chances that they’ll stay on track and complete on time — making an educational investment that they won’t regret.

Aligned for Success

Whether you’re a technical college or a liberal arts university, labor market insight can help you better assess, improve, and demonstrate how your offerings connect to learners’ career goals. This creates alignment with learners’ top priorities and driving motivations — their “why” — which, in turn, positions academic programs for success.

Want help using labor market information to position your programs for success? Drop us a note. We'll be in touch soon to help you find the right data and tools for your institution.