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The need for better data on the performance of higher education has become a major focus of education policymakers, and this has been reflected in federal legislation. Community colleges are appropriately held accountable for the workforce outcomes of their students, but the data that are gathered to evaluate those outcomes must reflect the post-college occupational experiences of their students: child-care providers, engineers, nurses, general contractors, and members of the armed forces. To better understand the current state of linkages between education and workforce outcomes, we examined the following:
1. The assumptions federal legislation makes about linkages between education and workforce outcomes and the data needed to document those outcomes.
2. How well current data collection systems capture the workforce outcomes of educational pursuits.
Linkages Between Education and Workforce Data Collection Proposed in Federal Legislation
The U.S. Department of Education and Department of Labor have a variety of programs designed to use individual student data to examine the workforce outcomes of students who complete educational programs. However, most of these statewide student-level data systems have been focused on K–12 education, with explicit funding for
State Education Agencies (SEAs). Federally funded programs have collected individual-level data on postsecondary workforce outcomes to measure performance relating to employment placement, retention, and earnings; however, not all data are adequately available to participating community colleges.
Data Sources for Workforce Outcomes of Educational Pursuits
All states currently collect individual-level workforce data for those program participants who work for an employer through unemployment insurance systems. In some instances, individual-level unemployment insurance data are shared between agencies in a state and are shared between states through the Wage Record Interchange System (WRIS) data-sharing agreement. Workforce data for federal employees, including military personnel, are also collected and shared with states to meet federal reporting requirements via the Federal Employment Data Exchange System (FEDES). Unfortunately, institutional access to these data is limited, placing a considerable and unnecessary burden on institutions.
A further limitation to the evaluation of postsecondary education programs is that, while state and federal systems collect individual-level data for those who work for an employer or government entities, those who are self-employed are not included in these data systems. In 2007, some 21.7 million people worked in fields such as veterinary services, accounting, general contractors, specialty trade contractors, health practitioners, social workers, machinery repair, and engineering.
The use of data to make decisions is at the core of an accountability culture. The federal government has encouraged the collection of individual-level data to inform policy decisions about education and workforce preparation. These advancements, in addition to the numerous data systems and interstate partnerships, contribute greatly to our ability to understand the link between college and career readiness, but much more needs to be done. If we want to create data systems that inform students, parents, employers, and the community while improving educational practice, strong longitudinal data systems must be developed and utilized in ways consistent with a variety of both programmatic and educational objectives. Addressing the limitations identified in this brief would signify a substantial step forward.
Before the workforce outcomes of educational pursuits can be comprehensively analyzed, the following activities or policies need to receive further attention.
1. Encouraging Establishment of Postsecondary Longitudinal Data Systems. Nearly half a billion dollars either has been spent or is pending distribution to SEAs for the expressed purpose of building longitudinal data systems based on student-unit records. While the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 and the proposed American Graduation Initiative (AGI) encourage the establishment of postsecondary education data systems, the funds have yet to be provided (and AGI is not yet authorized).
2. Providing Colleges With Access to Data. Federal and state legislation need to explicitly authorize providing necessary and appropriate workforce-related data to colleges and their representing agencies, if applicable, while ensuring adequate privacy protections. The substantial institutional reporting burdens associated with federal programs would be greatly reduced if colleges were given the ability to more fully interact with existing data systems and exchange partnerships that track individual workforce outcomes.
3. Collecting Comprehensive Employment Data. Collecting individual-level education and workforce outcome data across various state and federal departments, agencies, and partnerships must somehow take into account the role that individual choice plays in a given career path as well as the fact that, currently, employment data are not available for all categories of employment. Thus, collecting data that truly reflect occupational success for any given trainee is an immensely complicated issue that merits much further analysis.