March 19, 2018 by Remie Verougstraete
In light of an ever changing regulatory, economic, and competitive landscape, schools like Essex County College in northeast New Jersey are continuously evaluating the relevance of their programs: revamping some, scaling back others, sometimes starting new programs from scratch. These are critical decisions with far-reaching effects. And while anecdotes and intuition have their place, the administration at Essex also understands the value of data.
“We needed a real quantitative analysis of who our students were and what they needed,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lee, vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer at Essex, which served over 20,000 credit and non-credit students last year. “More importantly, we needed a quantitative analysis of what they didn’t need.”
To answer these questions, Essex partnered with Emsi to conduct a Program Demand Gap Analysis (PDGA). The PDGA report gave Lee and his team critical insight into their regional labor market and tied that information directly back to their academic programs. Fortunately for Essex, the report indicated that some of the strongest labor market demand was for programs they already offered, such as allied health and engineering technology.
For Lee, this data helped clarify trends he had noticed for some time.
“The Emsi data backed up what we were seeing,” he said. “We knew the gap was there. Now we can say how big the gap is.”
With hard data demonstrating the relevance of these programs for their local economy, Essex is now ready to tackle one of the underlying causes of the gaps: low enrollment in related programs.
One change Essex plans to make is adjusting class times for certain programs based on feedback from students. For example, while evening classes worked well for their business and paralegal programs, Lee credits Dr. Dmitriy Kalantarov, chair of the engineering division, with talking to students in his department and discovering that most of them prefer to take classes during the day.
But the real game changer has been a renewed focus on internal marketing and helping students understand the available program and career options. Before stepping into his current administrative role, Lee was a biology professor at Essex. He saw firsthand that incoming students are often only aware of a few high-profile career paths.
“I’ve had students come to me who don’t know what a nurse does, but tell me they want to be a nurse,” Lee said. “It helps that now we can direct them to other areas that have greater needs. Not everything in healthcare goes through nursing.”
Faculty and staff are working to correct similar misconceptions in the engineering program. For example, the PDGA showed that Essex’s service region currently needs more engineering technicians than full-fledged engineers. These technician roles often involve more hands-on work and require only a certificate rather than a full bachelor’s degree. Taking this information to students, Lee found that many of them actually have a stronger interest in the technician roles once they better understand the different career options.
The result? Students spend less time (and money) in school, get work experience in their industry of choice sooner, and still have the option to complete their bachelor’s degree later.
It’s an approach that has proven highly effective. In fact, Lee says that Dr. Kalantarov has nearly quadrupled the number of people in the engineering technician major in the last two months, just by informing students early on about what they can do with the degree.
“It’s a major that was already there, but it didn’t have a champion,” Lee said.
Besides looking at specific programs, Essex also wanted to better understand and demonstrate the value of the college as a whole. To that end, they worked with Emsi to conduct an Economic Impact Study (EIS). This report measures the college’s impact on the region’s economy using a variety of metrics, like graduate earnings and the effect of those earnings on the regional tax base. It even considers the socioeconomic impact of the school through factors like lower incarceration rates for graduates.
“It shows the value of coming here,” said Lee. “We’ve always told students, ‘It’s good for you.’ But now we have this analysis that shows exactly how good it is for you.”
Essex is utilizing these reports to support a variety of initiatives. For example, they hope to include the EIS infographic in marketing efforts (see below).
At the academic administration level, the PDGA report is informing conversations about how programs will operate in the future and how some departments will be reorganized. For instance, Essex plans to add a new dean of allied health in the near future to continue revamping and building out its non-nursing healthcare programs.
Initiatives like these require confidence and buy-in from everyone involved. To that end, Lee shared outlines of the Emsi data with the president’s cabinet and others at the college who could help verify and interpret it.
“One person—a meticulous statistician—in the president’s cabinet said, ‘Yeah, these numbers are good,’” said Lee. “It was refreshing to see that some of the same things we saw qualitatively were backed up quantitatively.”
By blending personal experience with robust labor market data, Essex County College is continuing its legacy of equipping students for success in an evolving economy.