Ensuring college degrees are worth the time, money and effort is a challenge this nation must solve. Simply put: more degrees of value mean a more prosperous, equitable future.

The college attainment enterprise is certainly working hard and using considerable resources to make college more affordable and beneficial, but it is missing an important solution right under our noses.

The “big reveal” came during a recent meeting with higher education hall of famers: Stanford University Registrar Thomas Black, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce director Anthony Carnevale, and manager of strategic partnerships for IEBC’s Tuning USA John Yopp.

The discussion focused on how higher education can be more in tune with employers to ensure that what is taught and learned in colleges prepares students for current jobs and emerging careers.

The group lamented that surveys of CEOs and human resource directors don’t work, because CEOs are often not in touch with frontline knowledge of what makes employees successful. And frontline managers are too hard to reach and rarely able to translate the skills and competencies required for a particular position into the academic achievements described in traditional transcripts.

Carnevale asked, “Have you tried O*NET?”

The question was met with blank stares from the group with more than a century of higher education/workforce experience among them. The lack of awareness was reaffirmed in queries of leaders from the Big 10 to Ivy Leagues, community colleges and others. “Is that a breakfast cereal?”

We soon learned that O*NET (Occupational Information Network) is a database sponsored by the US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration (USDOL/ETA) that contains detailed descriptions of the world of work, including expandable fields of skills, abilities, knowledge, work activities, and career interests for more than 1,000 occupations. While industry-specific databases exist, it is the only comprehensive career database to be continually updated by surveying a broad range of workers from each occupation since the early 2000’s.

We could barely contain our excitement when exploring the data. Want to know the skills, knowledge and degrees required by the latest “green jobs,” the number of job openings and how much they pay? Planning and budgeting for courses and need to know the software used by Neurodiagnostic Technologists? The database search engine correlates and generates a user-friendly report with answers.

Then the “what if’s” started:

What if Tuning and the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) — two significant efforts funded by the Lumina Foundation to bridge the divide between the classroom and the workforce — tapped into O*NET? A key exercise in the Tuning Process is to engage faculty experts in the discipline in constructing an “Employability Map” of the range of occupations in which graduates may find a career. The Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) seeks to define the overall skills, knowledge and abilities acquired in the college experience at each degree level: associate, bachelor and masters.

In total, more than 500 institutions across the US are already engaged in one or both of these programs, but have yet to consistently use the O*NET database.

What if more faculty and other educators described courses, degrees, Student Learning Outcomes (SLO’s) and competencies in language that parallels the language of the information employers use and that appears in job descriptions? The SLO’s and competencies that determine college majors can be linked to the database with a feature that prioritizes the knowledge and skills (including social skills) in accordance with those that employers in that field deem most important. Continuing to tap into this information could ensure education keeps pace with industry progress and innovation.

What if colleges included on their web sites and in recruitment efforts more direction in using this data to choose a degree program? For example, a search by interest, degree, industry, technology, knowledge or skill would show paths toward specific occupations and the latest wages. This would be an exceptional service for students concerned about debt and/or planning their next career move.

What if employers and industry found higher education to be more responsive and relevant and actively aligned employee advancement and training with their local higher education institutions? We’ve come full circle. Instead of figuring out ways to entice employer involvement, they become full partners with higher education.

This source of occupational information gleaned from surveying those currently on the job solves the age-old standoff of employers complaining that they aren’t getting graduates prepared to work and faculty complaining that the signals from employers are weak or vague.

America’s postsecondary educational institutions comprise the largest career preparation system in the world, but its value is in question. Students, colleges, and the nation’s workforce suffer when higher education institutions don’t know or agree on the knowledge and skills students need for success in career and life. With tools like O*NET in existence, higher education has run out of excuses for not being able to answer the seemingly simple question: What can students and workers seeking to advance or change careers get out of their college education?

This free, publicly available database clearly lacks an advertising and PR budget, so check it out and pass it on. The robust, humble resource is a solution to the college completion and productivity agenda truly hiding in plain sight.