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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December/January edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Big data is all the rage on campus—and why not? With the amount of information colleges collect, it makes sense that administrators would use what they know to boost student outcomes.
If only it were that simple.
The knock on big data has and continues to be that, despite the vast amount of information colleges and other proponents suddenly have at their disposal, using that information to spur effective institutional change is harder than it seems.
Despite these challenges, some forward-thinking community college leaders are putting big data to work. At Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) in southeastern Washington, for example, administrators have used workforce data to slowly transform the region’s once-flagging local economy into a model of smart growth and development. WWCC used data to guide the systematic expansion of its curriculum, providing targeted career and learning opportunities for students.
“We were looking for information to help us with strategic planning,” says WWCC President Steve VanAusdle of the college’s efforts.
What's in demand
VanAusdle credits a background in economics and finance for his interest in data. He led a pivotal realignment of the college in the late 1990s, not long after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement contributed to a swoon in the local economy.
“We lost much of our food processing and lumber products industries,” VanAusdle recalls of the transition. “We had a few hundred students on our doorstep seeking worker retraining. The question was, for what?”
It was a turning point, he says.
“We decided we had to reinvent the college if we were going to contribute to the transformation of this area. We took some pretty bold actions."
Using data it had collected to identify new workforce opportunities for students across the region, the college decided to double down on its successful nursing program. Engineering and environmental issues were also in demand, so the college launched its Water & Environmental Center to meet the demand for workers with skills from salmon recovery to farm irrigation. It even partnered with tractor maker John Deere to train mechanics and enroll more students in its burgeoning wind energy programs.
The data experts
The process began over a decade ago when VanAusdle first met the founders of EMSI—shorthand for Economic Modeling Specialists International. The fledgling company in Moscow, Idaho, prides itself on turning mountains of labor market data into useful information for clients, principally community colleges.
“We were excited by EMSI’s interest in helping community colleges measure their impact on students, communities they serve, and the return they could generate back to the taxpayer,” VanAusdle says.
Among EMSI’s primary services are economic impact studies.
“These are social-economic models that bring relevant data together to estimate the value of community colleges in their regions,” explains Josh Wright, senior editor at EMSI. Wright says his company has generated reports for nearly half the nation’s community colleges.
Walla Walla Community College named co-winner of Aspen Prize
WWCC recently teamed up with EMSI and Earth Economics, a Tacoma, Wash.-based analyzer of ecological data, to determine the validity WWCC’s watershed ecology program, including its established student career paths.
“EMSI conducted the human capital piece and Earth Economics did the natural capital impact,” VanAusdle explains.
Together, the two organizations culled and presented information used to build and grow the college’s Water & Environmental Center, which in 2010 won the Governor’s Workforce & Economic Development Best Practices Award.
“We’ve seen the power of data improve the decision-making process and productivity of the institution,” VanAusdle says.
That data is part of the reason WWCC decided to invest in education and training programs to support the region’s growing wine industry, housed in a state-of-the-art $5 million education and research center on campus.
When the program first launched, there were just 16 wineries in the region. Today, there are nearly 170 wineries and vineyards and a robust tourism industry that includes high-end restaurants, accommodations and other attendant businesses.
To better plan for these trends, VanAusdle hired Nick Velluzzi as WWCC’s director of planning, research and assessment. Velluzzi worked with EMSI to produce a pair of workforce studies—in 2007 and a follow-up in 2011—to better understand the wine industry’s regional economic impact. The latest data show that the industry is responsible for more than 6,000 jobs in the local economy, which represent more than 14 percent of the regional workforce and upward of $270 million in annual revenues.
“For every one direct job at a winery, three additional jobs are created,” Velluzzi explains.
At least 60 students per cohort are enrolled in WWCC’s enology and viticulture program, which offers certificate and two-year degree courses—not to mention a pipeline to a fertile and growing job market.
A national call to action
WWCC is among a growing number of community colleges whose harnessing of big data reflects one of the major goals laid out in the American Association of Community Colleges' 2012 report, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future.” In underscoring a need to redesign, reinvent, and reset the nation’s community colleges, AACC has placed an emphasis on the importance of data as a means to inform change.
AACC implementation teams finish their work
Specifically, AACC has challenged community colleges to “develop technology-based tools that will help local colleges access available labor market data to identify and monitor skills gaps in their regions.”
The call to action couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Across the country, employers have complained that skills gaps are impeding economic growth and development. Community colleges are viewed as partners in closing these gaps, largely for their ability to assess local needs and pivot education and training programs to meet demand.
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