When educators at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County, California, used a new data system to learn that only 22 percent of students who completed the college’s medical assistant program were getting jobs in their field, they took the data to local employers to find out what was going on. “Clearly, we were ready for bad news,” says Rock Pfotenhauer, the dean of career education and economic development at Cabrillo at the time. “And, sure enough, we were told, ‘Well, your program isn’t preparing students at the level we need.’”

Area employers said that, due to changes in the healthcare industry, the job of a medical assistant had evolved substantially — they were now expecting new medical assistants to demonstrate not only clinical expertise, but also strong math and language skills.

While Cabrillo faculty had been meeting regularly with employers to solicit exactly this kind of feedback, says Pfotenhauer, they hadn’t discussed the low hiring rate of students in their medical assistant program until obtaining data that revealed there was a problem. The frank conversations that followed enabled the faculty to restructure and revamp the program to make it more effective.

“Our instructors took action and created a program that is so successful that these same employers have asked that it be replicated elsewhere,” says Pfotenhauer, who now chairs the Bay Area Community College Consortium, a group of 28 colleges in and around San Francisco working together to improve postsecondary vocational and technical education. “But it was only with access to data on our graduates’ employment outcomes and regional employment trends that we knew what questions to ask in order to both identify and solve the problems.”

Cabrillo officials obtained that data thanks to the LaunchBoard, a statewide data system developed by WestEd and financed by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, and from which educators at all of California’s 114 community colleges now have easy access to precisely the kind of information Pfotenhauer and his colleagues found so helpful. By aggregating information from multiple sources, the LaunchBoard significantly expands the academic and employment data available to community colleges, including labor market projections, information on students’ academic performance, and students’ work and earnings outcomes. Pfotenhauer describes the LaunchBoard as a “transformational” tool.

“It makes our students’ outcomes visible,” he says. “And having that visibility enables our colleges — both individually and collectively — to get better.”

Providing powerful data to key players

Given the critical role community colleges play on the national higher education stage, access to accurate information on their students’ employment and earnings outcomes is crucial, says Kathy Booth, a WestEd senior research associate who helped develop the LaunchBoard and trains community college personnel to use the system. According to Booth, about half of higher education enrollees in the United States are attending two-year community colleges, with goals that range from completing short-term career and technical education programs to preparing for transfer to four-year institutions.

“Community colleges have a strong track record of improving students’ financial stability, particularly in career and technical education,” says Booth. “They represent the major avenue that disadvantaged people have to get to a living wage. And the LaunchBoard is helping document exactly which colleges — and which programs at those colleges — are most successful in promoting students’ economic mobility.”

Aggregating data from multiple sources. The LaunchBoard provides community college practitioners — from administrators to counselors to faculty — with a range of powerful information to help them understand and improve the outcomes of students in career and technical education programs, says Booth. The data are gleaned from a variety of sources, including demographics and coursework details from community colleges, adult education institutions, and K–12 school districts; employment and earnings trends from the California Employment Development Department; self-reported work histories from students; and labor market data on regional job markets. Users can access and view all of the information from an online dashboard, acquiring a snapshot of students’ progress through specific career and technical education programs and the workforce.

“There’s no way a community college could pull together all that information on its own,” says Booth, “let alone in a format that helps educators understand whether a program is succeeding or needs to be improved.”

The LaunchBoard can reveal, for example, how much students’ earnings increased after attending college and whether students have attained the regional living wage. It also visualizes equity gaps — by age, gender, and ethnicity — related to enrollment, certificate or degree attainment, and earnings gains. Such data can be procured for a specific region or the entire state and, notes Booth, the data are presented in a straightforward format accessible even to faculty or staff who may not be comfortable or skilled in sifting through data online.

“It makes our students’ outcomes visible. And having that visibility enables our colleges — both individually and collectively — to get better.”

The system can also be customized to examine overall outcomes at an institution; evaluate all programs associated with a specific sector, such as health or public services; or zero in on individual programs. College personnel, for example, can learn why their students stop taking courses or how satisfied students are with their education experience. Personnel can also determine if students who are not pursuing a degree or certificate, but instead taking a cluster of courses in a certain area, are benefiting from the experience.

With that kind of data, notes Booth, practitioners at a college in the Central Valley, for example, can see how many of their graduates in nursing are getting jobs in the field, how much money they are making, and how many nurses are going to be needed in the area in the coming years. “They can then use that information to compare their results to those of other area colleges and to make any necessary updates to their program for the future,” says Booth.

LaunchBoard data can also help educators recognize unmet needs, notes Booth. She recalls working with college faculty and administrators in the San Diego area, where an analysis of student employment data demonstrated that, after graduating, students were still locked into low-wage jobs. “That led to the realization that the college needed to develop stronger course pathways that would enable students to increase their skills over time,” says Booth. “For instance, although a position as a pharmacy tech might be a good first job, it only pays minimum wage, and educators need to think about what might come next for those students.”

Highlighting regional needs and promoting accountability

Pfotenhauer cites the LaunchBoard’s ability to aggregate data on a regional basis as one of its strengths. Noting that California is driven by multiple regional economies, he sees the LaunchBoard as a way to “help align our colleges’ programs to better address workforce development issues on a regional scale.” It’s a matter, Pfotenhauer says, “of strengthening each college’s portfolio, but in a way that also strengthens the regional portfolio.”

Booth explains that deep understanding of regional market factors and a commitment to working together to meet regional needs has helped community colleges generate innovative new programs while minimizing the risk of duplicating each other’s offerings. In some cases, she reports, colleges operating within the same region are cutting costs by sharing expensive resources, such as mobile computer labs.

In addition, notes Booth, accessibility to solid data on everything from enrollment trends to student employment outcomes has helped community colleges set more precise long-term goals. Such data also help colleges advocate for additional funding. “Good data can legitimize a funding request to the legislature,” says Booth, “because lawmakers can be assured there will be accountability based on students’ actual economic outcomes.”

One of the lessons learned from developing the LaunchBoard, reports Booth, is that education data systems are typically set up to respond to external accountability requirements rather than to answer practitioner-driven questions that could help improve students’ economic outcomes. “But with WestEd’s support, California has been able to provide easy access to practitioners’ most commonly requested data points,” she says. “We see the LaunchBoard as a model that can be replicated in other states, and we’re excited to be talking regularly with others hoping to do so.”

But, mostly, Booth is struck by how hungry community college practitioners are for accurate, comprehensive data that can launch meaningful conversations about their students’ education and economic attainment, and can promote action where needed. To be sure, educators are gratified to learn about programs that are succeeding and determine ways to expand their reach. However, says Booth, they are just as eager to identify the underlying issues that may be curtailing a program’s effectiveness.

“Community college educators aren’t afraid of the facts and they are working hard to make a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” she says. “The LaunchBoard gives them the data they need to do just that.”