How to Determine Alignment Between Jobs and Academic Programs

January 17, 2023

The following piece is a revised excerpt from Bob Atkins best-selling book, Start, Stop, or Grow?: A Data-informed Approach To Academic Program Evaluation And Management.

When it comes to preparing your students for employment after graduation, understanding the crosswalk between degree and employment will empower you to lead your graduates to success.

The Crosswalk between Degree and Employment

The number of jobs available in fields related to a program is a starting point for employment analysis. How do analysts determine which jobs align with which programs? Auto tech programs directly prepare students to become auto mechanics. Over 80 percent of nursing students go into nursing. So far, so good. But which occupations do business majors go into? CEO? General manager? Retail sales? The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) publishes a crosswalk that aligns programs with jobs for which their students are directly prepared.

General Degrees Require More Analysis

Let’s look at the potential job market for a general degree like business. According to the NCES crosswalks, a business major is directly prepared to become a general manager, CFO, CEO, business analyst, or one of twenty-five other occupations. Let’s assume there are one hundred thousand Bureau of Labor Statistics job openings in these occupations. Do we assign them all to business majors? What about the accounting majors or finance majors who are also directly prepared for the occupations? Are the one hundred thousand jobs available to them, too?

If we assign all the jobs to each program, we’ll end up claiming that three hundred thousand jobs are available, one hundred thousand each for business, accounting, and finance. Unfortunately, analysts who research a single program seldom recognize this problem:  They assume that all the jobs in related occupations are available to graduates of the program under study, substantially overestimating employment opportunities. To fix this error, jobs need to be split up and allocated among all the programs that prepare students for the occupation.

As I am sure you know, students are an unruly bunch. They do not read crosswalks, and many go into all sorts of fields for which they are not directly prepared. In particular, the majors from the much-maligned liberal arts often do not go into the fields for which they are directly prepared. NCES opines that history majors are only prepared to go into about ten fields (the number changes from time to time). These occupations include secondary school history teacher, secondary school teacher, historian, and “business, other.” Not a lot of jobs there—or pay.

Flaws in NCES Data

Does the NCES crosswalk reflect reality? Not really. NCES is honest about it: “The purpose of the crosswalk is to match postsecondary programs of study that provide graduates with specific skills and knowledge to occupations requiring those skills or knowledge to be successful. The matches are based on the content of the CIP Code and SOC Code descriptions combined with expertise from statisticians at both federal agencies. The CIP SOC Crosswalk is not based on actual empirical data.”¹

According to the American Community Survey (the long form of the US Census), history majors go into over four hundred fields, about one hundred times as many as reported in the NCES crosswalk. Between the ages of thirty and sixty, history majors earn more than 76 percent of other majors and have unemployment rates that are about average (56th percentile).

Crosswalks are often taken for granted, ignored, or grossly miscalculated. I suspect these errors underlie many of the popular misconceptions about degrees, jobs, and wages. Creating a good crosswalk takes considerable domain knowledge about programs and occupations. It is tedious work to align over one thousand academic programs, six degree levels, and seven hundred occupations—a matrix with 4.2 million cells. When you see data on employment for graduates of academic programs, ask where it comes from and how it was calculated. Be sure the underlying crosswalk reflects reality, not just the opinions of labor market economists.

It is easy to make massive errors aligning programs to jobs, errors that may underestimate or overestimate jobs by ten times or more. At Gray, we have spent years developing, refining, and deduping our crosswalks. We started with the NCES crosswalk and still use it for “direct prep” jobs. To complement this view, we also use data from the ACS survey to track the fields in which program graduates are actually employed and what they earn.

To determine which jobs align with which academic programs, colleges and universities need to understand both what the data indicates and its limitations. Using data from the American Community Survey can help analysts see the actual jobs program graduates get and develop a more accurate crosswalk between degree and employment.


¹ National Center for Education Statistics, “CIP SOC Crosswalk,” September 2021, https://nces. ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/post3.aspx?y=56; emphasis is author’s.

Robert Atkins

CEO AND FOUNDER OF GRAY ASSOCIATES

Bob led Gray’s entry into the education industry and the development of Gray’s proprietary industry databases and service offerings. He has worked directly with many of Gray’s education clients, consulting with CEOs and CMOs on business strategy, pricing, location selection, curricular efficiency, and program strategy.

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