The start of the MLB playoffs this week is a good reminder that nothing has changed the American pastime more than the systematic use of data to build great teams and win more games. As chronicled by Michael Lewis in his best-seller Moneyball, the Oakland A’s pioneered the practice, combing statistics to identify players who might not have big names (or big paychecks) but who could demonstrate high on-base percentages or threw an impressive number of ground outs. Today, playoff contenders from the Houston Astros to the Tampa Bay Rays have joined the A’s in demonstrating that wise use of data is vital to achieving results.

The same is true when it comes to tackling our nation’s education and workforce challenges. Even as economic growth has brought unemployment to record lows, millions of Americans are being left behind by a changing economy that increasingly rewards education and training beyond high school. To thrive in this new environment, they need more opportunities to access and complete postsecondary credentials that lead to productive careers. But too often higher education leaders, employers, and state policymakers have lacked the empirical tools they need to work together effectively to help all learners, especially working adults, build marketable skills.

That’s why representatives from six states gathered late last month in St. Louis to launch a new initiative that will marshal the power of data to expand opportunity. Through a partnership between the National Governors Association and the national nonprofit I lead, Strada Education Network, they will tap into a $2.3 million grant together with state-specific, proprietary data from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey, a unique survey comprised of interviews from more than 340,000 individuals of various backgrounds and skill levels.

Like the consumer feedback data that has spurred innovation in industries from e-commerce to hospitality, this trove of information will allow leaders in Minnesota, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Wyoming to zero in on what kind of education residents in their states say they want and value. Why do they decide to pursue postsecondary credentials – or not? How satisfied are they with the value and workforce relevance of the post-high school education they receive from education providers in those states?

Where consumers tell participating states the system has fallen short – too little relevance, poor career advising, not enough attention to the distinctive needs of adult learners – their feedback can be used to push for improvement in existing institutions. When necessary, the insights they provide can also help states develop innovative interventions that bypass the status quo.

This collaborative process between educators, employers, and states will be informed by another rich data set that pinpoints economic needs within different parts of each state. By analyzing the skills sought in millions of job postings, together with the skills candidates present on their resumés, Strada affiliate and labor analytics firm Emsi will provide the six states with tailored data on skill demands – and skill gaps.

Where there’s a mismatch, states will have a clearer view of how and where to realign their education and training offerings to connect residents to jobs in growing industries. And whether they’re revamping existing offerings or creating alternative credential pathways, policymakers will need to do so in ways that make sense for large numbers of disadvantaged adults who badly need to retool their skills to achieve economic mobility. 

No baseball manager improves a team with data alone, of course. Data-driven scouting needs to be accompanied by effective coaching, hard work during practice, and performance under pressure on the field. With this in mind, Strada and the NGA will work side by side with the six states participating in the NGA Educate for Opportunity project. We’ll offer policy and technical assistance that helps states apply this new data effectively to better align postsecondary and workforce priorities. 

This realignment may not be easy, but there’s little doubt that it is long overdue. Forty-two states have established ambitious postsecondary attainment goals, yet fewer than half of adults aged 25-64 have earned a credential beyond high school. States are the right place to forge education and workforce solutions that help their residents prosper. With better data in hand, they should be well-positioned to take on this challenge.

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