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Investigating the knowable unknowns


Our stakeholder assessments go a bit deeper than "prioritizing needs." We start with a discrete set of problems defined by a client start digging like Mike Mulligan (Burton, 1939); although, our steam shovel is actually an anticipatory qualitative methodology. Enroute to bottom, to which we rarely make it, we discover and document how complicated, entangled, and idiographic each problem really is. Along the way we encounter many knowable unknowns, and that is what is what this post about.

To solve most problems, it's important to understand the problem's scope, nature, cause, and impact. On several topics and issues explored for several recent community college clients, we bumped into a number of missing "facts."

The problem we were investigating is how to optimize workforce development programs to meet the dual missions of 1) connecting students to jobs and 2) connecting employers to qualified workers. Below is a brief list of facts our group of participating experts could not precisely provide:

  • Number of discontinued students by program and academic year.
  • Causes of students discontinuing their academic journey.
  • Number of open local and regional positions by workforce category for which a community college graduate would qualify.
  • Number of qualified community college graduates employed by local and regional employers, by program and academic year.
  • Number of local and regional high school graduates not on a post-secondary track by high school and academic year.
  • Number (or rate) of high school students participating in dual-enrollment programs that transfer to and complete a post-secondary credential.
  • Number of unengaged, under-employed adult learners who have interest in a post-secondary educational pathway to a local or regional in-demand job.
  • Number of earned but un-awarded stackable credentials by program and academic year.
  • Annual economic loss of unfilled workforce positions for which a community college graduate would qualify.
  • Linear distance a new student must travel on campus to register and enroll in a program of their choosing.
  • Number of queues and amount of time new students spend in these queues to register and enroll in a program of their choosing.

Knowing facts like these can help our community college clients in at least three ways:

  1. Prioritizing response focus and determining scale of response.
  2. Identification of root and exacerbating causes.
  3. Discovery of related but non-focal problems, measures, solutions, and alternatives.

To investigate these facts, it would require a longitudinal, mixed method inquiry guided by an evolving conceptual framework aligned with the goals of the college, local and state governments, partnering CBOS, and employers.