July 23, 2019 by Mary Claire Miltenberger
As enrollment across higher education continues to decline, colleges and universities face even greater pressure to bring in new students and offer a compelling return on investment. In this environment, institutions must know what sets them apart and create programs that connect those strengths to opportunities in the labor market. That’s where Dr. Kim O’Halloran comes in at Widener University.
As associate provost and dean for graduate studies and extended learning, a big part of O’Halloran’s job is facilitating the change and innovation that ensures Widener’s continued relevance. When reviewing program proposals, she uses three key criteria to evaluate whether a potential program has what it takes to be successful:
“When those three pieces come together, that’s when you have a successful program in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” said O’Halloran.
Once a program checks the first two boxes, O’Halloran uses labor market data to assess the third criterion: program marketability. However, it can be agonizing and time-consuming to pull together all the relevant data from different sources. The Widener team needed a way of making this process more efficient. Their solution? Emsi’s Analyst—a tool that gathers all the necessary data into one place, and makes it available in easily customizable reports.
“One reason we chose Analyst was the interface and the ease of using it. It’s very simple for someone who is not as tech savvy to navigate,” said O’Halloran. “Market research is a key component of program development. This is a service that we in the provost’s office can offer to our faculty.”
Analyst makes it easy for administrators at Widener to look at labor market data, find skill gaps, and then tailor programs appropriately. It is also a helpful tool for fielding new program ideas—a time-saver for someone with O’Halloran’s job. “Sometimes I’ll get feedback from our admissions recruiters saying, ‘I received 10 requests this month for a major in X,’” she said. “Before taking it to the academic dean or faculty, I’ll run a report to see if there’s really something to that, or if it was just a blip.”
Likewise, when faculty approach O’Halloran with new program proposals, she’ll run their ideas through Analyst to confirm and clarify the need. “When I tell them that I’ve discovered something that supports a hunch they had, we are energized and excited to move forward with program development,” she shared.
As dean of extended learning, O’Halloran also proactively looks for opportunities to create new programs that serve adult learners. For example, she recently spearheaded development of a new graduate program in organizational development and leadership. The undergraduate leadership program is one of Widener’s strongest, so O’Halloran used Analyst to confirm that there was demand in the market for graduates with a master’s in the same field. Why not create an accelerated program for students to achieve their master’s in one additional year?
O’Halloran’s use of Analyst didn’t end there. As she and her colleagues built the new four plus one program, they looked at related job postings data to see the hard and common skills sought by employers. This insight helped to inform curriculum development, ensuring that students will gain experience in those in-demand skill areas before they graduate.
Profile Analytics, a component of Analyst that provides data from online professional profiles, also plays an important role in program development. O’Halloran uses the profile data to look for common trends and patterns in how their alumni are using their education in the labor market. These findings can then be used to improve or revitalize existing programs. For example, O’Halloran pointed out that if many English majors go on to work in publishing houses, she could work with faculty to propose a publishing track as a strategic addition to the English program, better equipping students for what has proven to be a common career path.
As an academic leader, O’Halloran is passionate about ensuring that Widener can continue to deliver its exceptional experience to students. Using reliable labor market data, Widener can make decisions about the institution’s future that are firmly grounded in reality, and in the needs of both the student and the workforce.
“To me, our job in the provost’s office is to support the work of our faculty and our deans in their fields,” said O’Halloran. “If I can find a way to provide this service to them and provide a foundation of data that helps them to frame a successful program, I think that’s a remarkable service we offer to our faculty. And one that I’m really happy that Emsi allows me to provide.”
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