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Technical Education Can Power the Recovery

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Joseph M. Demma

August 30, 2020

As American educators connected to policy discussions and political trends, we are immersed with the broad counsel from experts to prepare people for competition in a "new, global economy" (Schray and Sheets, 2018, p.149). And, they say, we ought to start aligning learning to career aspirations much earlier in the secondary curriculum. In a White House report in 2014 titled Ready to work: job-driven training and American opportunity, Vice President Joe Biden wrote that "Career readiness needs to start early. Too few of America's students are exposed to learning that links their studies in school to future college and career pathways."

For their part, colleges and universities have expanded offerings and loosened policies that make access to higher education for students less complicated than at any point in American history. The explosion of online learning from universities, blended-delivery of the curriculum in hybrid distance education offerings at community colleges, and proliferation of public and private vocational schools provide an extensive menu of options for students to engage in post-secondary education.

However, not everyone can take advantage of the expansion of enrollment opportunities. For instance, data provided by Ballantine, Hammack, and Stuber (2017) show that students from the lowest income backgrounds enroll in college at a rate of 45.5%, compared to 78.5% enrollment from the highest income. Additionally, overall statistics show that only "53 percent of those who enter college will graduate from that institution within six years" (Gray, 2013, p.1245). Despite the work done by traditional higher education systems and schools to expand opportunities for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, studies show that "gaps in enrollment in traditional higher education between high and low-income families are greater for the more recent cohorts of students" (Sacerdote, 2016, p.1) than ever before.

Furthermore, D'Amico, Morgan, Katsinas, and Friedel (2015) reveal findings that show that businesses in America are not satisfied with college graduates. For instance, a Gallup report finds that only "11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that 'higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs'" (D'Amico et al., 2015, p.191).

This blog entry explores the potential for vocational education, through community or technical colleges, to help fill these enrollment and workforce gaps through innovative pathways and overcome structural and perception challenges.

Student Grit

Post-secondary students in the 2020s have incredible opportunities to learn in addition to a wide range of distractions that inhibit their educational progress. Lack of time, funds, and/or aptitude are all contributing factors leading to what currently constitutes an alarmingly low completion rate among students (Gray, 2013). A quick snapshot of the new demographic of the post-secondary student identifies the challenges those students face: "the majority of students in community colleges or occupational programs are from low-to-modest income backgrounds" (Gauthier, 2019, p.57). Considering the financial and family responsibilities that grow exponentially as one ages through their 20s and 30s, the increasing cost of education is not helpful to completion rates. The cost of higher education is currently growing "3.64 times faster than general inflation" (Green, 2019).

Another impediment to the successful matriculation of at-risk students to higher education is rooted in, at best, ignorance or at worst, quasi-silent bigotry. Gray (2013) provides an analysis of research that concludes there exists an environment where "in some universities, at-risk students are expected to quit and are often treated "as if they lack maturity or are challenging, simply based on preconceived factors associated with socioeconomic status or family variables" (p.1247). This "cooling out" (Ballantine et al., 2017) effect, where students have their ambitions mitigated by universities, is especially troubling when coupled with the elitist argument that "community colleges are inferior" (p.417).

These factors, in addition to admissions policies and socioeconomic realities, are vital contributors for Ballantine et al., (2017) when they conclude that "the United States now ranks behind several other developed countries including Norway, the United Kingdom, and Poland" (p.415) in per-capita college graduates.

Today's students have impediments to success, that much is certain. But what they lack in the resources of time and money, they compensate for with hope. Van Noy and Zeidenberg (2017) note that even though low completion rates among community college students are a significant concern, "their high persistence rates are notable" (p.20). For instance, while community college students may take a long time to finish, "with enrollment that is part-time or interrupted, many do persist" (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2017, p.20).

In my job at a technical college, I see this hope and grit every day; students inspired by the idea of turning their life around or in a new direction. In our programs, from Surgical Technologist and Culinary Arts to Automotive Technology and Web Development, I see determination and optimism. I also see the constraints of hardship. Meanwhile, instead of focusing on ways to better serve and deploy these students into the workforce, a lot of administrators are caught up in the institutional vortex of academic debate and ideological warfare that has existed for many years; that vocational education is a lower form of learning for low-level learners. Instead of engaging in arguments over whether vocational subjects are "designed for students who do not perform well in a learning environment" (Bowden, Abhayawansa, and Bahtsevanoglou, 2015, p.441), schools should provide communications and ideals which promote "academic self-efficacy and motivation to succeed in learning" (p.431).

As students develop and mature into adulthood, the ownership of success (however it is defined by them) shifts, perhaps jarringly for some. Instead of parents or schoolteachers, suddenly they become responsible for the rest of their story. And, as Mike Rose (2010) describes a room full of adults he encountered at a vocational school, ownership can manifest in all kinds of unique ways. He writes of students explaining their reason for attending the college, "to "learn more," to be a "role model for my kids," to get "a career to support my daughter," to "have a better life" (Rose, 2010). The experiences Rose (2010) describes paints the picture of what an educated person looks like: someone in love with learning and growing, passionate about their chosen pathway, and finding a way to incorporate all of that into their economic stability through determination and grit.

Accordingly, students must take charge of their success. Instead of relying on teachers, parents, or politicians to solve all the problems, students are empowered to take advantage of the opportunities and maximize their investment of time and/or money. As educators, we can work to provide a learning environment that harnesses the potential of our students and leverages their unbounded hope.

Vocational Education

Primarily viewed as a valuable low-cost option for students wishing to enter careers where a traditional four-year degree is not required, technical and community colleges are also criticized for offering "terminal degrees in career and technical subjects" (Gauthier, 2019, p.57) and contributing to the "Diversion Effect" whereby programs offered at these institutions stunt a student's educational attainment. Ballantine et al. (2017) confirm this sentiment in their explanation of a California junior college where administration subscribed to the philosophy that lower-scoring students "could succeed in the terminal programs, although they would have to give up their dream of a four-year degree and the occupations requiring it" (p.417).

Regardless of its value to students and the economy, vocational education faces severe challenges to becoming relevant in kitchen-table college admissions discussions. Ballantine et al. (2017) specifically call out the need for technical and community colleges to do a "better job of serving less advantaged students and promoting transfers to four-year colleges" (p.416).

Structural Challenges

The hierarchical structure of higher education and vocational education has its roots in the industry-driven organizational model, which bifurcated the professional and skilled trades in post-World War II American Society (Schray and Sheets, 2018). The concept was to tailor a targeted education track for whichever of the two career pathways was taken, either by choice or placement. However, it immediately placed students into one of two categories: those who were academically strong enough to enter white-collar occupations, and students whose academic failings relegated them to valuable, but lesser-thought-of roles in blue-collar fields (Schray and Sheets, 2018).

Exacerbated by federal policies like the Smith Hughes Act and Carl Perkins Act, which were created to specifically target funds for vocational education, the dual-track approach to higher and vocational education resulted in bureaucratic breakdowns with competing policies, deliverables, and success measurements (Schray and Sheets, 2018).

Despite these complex challenges, my technical college works closely with a regional university to break down curricular and programmatic obstacles to offer students a seamless transition from a subsidized, work-based-learning certificate program into an associate or bachelor-level degree pathway. This seemingly simple vocational-to-academic articulation is, in fact, the result of years of maneuvering, of which both schools can share blame and credit. Because of the new partnerships, officially signed in late 2019, the political arguments against funding career pathway programs due to institutional battles have been removed, and the funding has arrived (Utah State Legislature, 2020).

Perception Challenges

During a recent conversation with a colleague, I asked for her opinion of the top three issues facing vocational education. Without hesitation, she responded, "perception, perception, and low paying jobs." Research confirms that the perception of vocational education is a considerable deterrent for students enrolling in those programs.

According to research conducted by Athens State University (Holm, 2019), high school counselors, arguably among the most significant post-secondary education decision influencers, are conflicted about whether to encourage students to consider vocational or career and technical education (CTE). Their data shows that counselors support career and technical education in theory and "feel that CTE should not be relegated to…low performing students, but a viable option for all" (Holm, 2019, p.15). However, when confronted with having their students attend CTE courses, school counselors were conflicted, with one participant reflecting the feeling of the group that "it's a good option for kids, but I wouldn't want mine to go that route" (Holm, 2019, p.15).

The Athens study concludes that several factors help form these opinions, including "a simple lack of exposure to the programs and student outcomes" (Holm, 2019, p.17). Marketing departments should be armed with this understanding as they build awareness and outreach campaigns to their communities. For instance, the marketing department at my technical college is currently transitioning it's messaging from one that reflects our school as the 8th period for the local high schools into one that is rooted in our role within higher education. The thinking is that if we communicate in an elevated and sophisticated way, we will be viewed through that same lens, not as a respite for students who get bad grades in high school, but a valuable refuge for learners of all stripes and styles interested in upward mobility. And, in concert with Holm's (2019) recommendation, our outreach team is engaging with high school counselors, parents, university faculty, and public officials to improve their exposure to our programs.

Vocational Value

Ballantine et al. (2017) encourage us to consider that "a very large segment of the college student population is not made up of full-time, traditional-age students for whom college is primarily a social experience, but of adult students over 25 seeking to improve their educational credentials, knowledge, and skills" (p.447). In this context, the ability for technical and community colleges to flexibly serve a student's needs is paramount to their delivery system. Also, as our country faces a severe economic challenge related to coronavirus recovery, the skilled workforce delivered by vocational education is critical to "both a continued economic recovery and the economic development of the states and regions that community colleges serve" (D'Amico, p.191).

With open-enrollment, low-cost tuition, and easy access to various locations, technical and community colleges already "enroll nearly half of the nation's undergraduate students, including high numbers of low-income and first-generation college students, many seeking to transfer to 4-year schools" (Van Noy and Zeidenberg, 2017, p.9). Ballantine et al. (2017) point out that "46 percent of those earning a bachelor's degree in 2013–14 were enrolled in a two-year institution at some point in their undergraduate career; Fifty percent of Hispanic students start at a community college, along with 31 percent of African-American students" (p.416).

The vocational institution's task is clear: to increase participation in low-cost certificate-level education programs, negative stigmas must be removed, and the value proposition for students of all aptitudes communicated. To do so, they must provide relevant education and training that leads to either a livable wage career, delivers transferable credit into a two or four-year college, or (best case scenario) both. Strategies to support these concepts can be implemented at the school or district level and may require broader allowances from state or collegiate accreditation agencies.

Furthermore, if technical or community colleges can communicate their ability to address a student's personal growth as well as society's need for a high-functioning workforce and provide parents and the business community more exposure to vocational programs, the more likely they will view a technical education as one of value (Holm, 2019).

Innovative Solutions

High School Connection

One innovative approach to address the challenge of vocational education relevancy at the high school level is offered by a George Lucas Educational Foundation report on integrated studies [Creating Interdisciplinary Projects (CIP), 2015]. The foundation highlights the success of High Tech High School in San Diego, California, where students choose a vocational major, and teachers collaborate to connect several disciplines (CIP, 2015). Using projects that incorporate the vocational major of the student, such as engineering or culinary arts, with the traditional curriculum of math, social studies, language arts, and science, teachers at High Tech High engage their students and "make real-world connections to what they are learning" (CIP, 2015).

Linked Learning, a curriculum used by Skyline High School in Oakland, California, builds on the idea of educating across disciplines by incorporating work-based learning experiences (Simmons, 2018). The goal at the school is to "provide students with meaningful, cross-disciplinary academic opportunities that connect to real careers" (Simmons, 2018). For example, at Skyline, students take traditional academic classes, participate in internships at businesses, and are awarded college credit. While a case-study of school-level partnership engagement, the Skyline High example proves that opportunities exist for school districts and states to encourage these best practices more broadly.

Higher Education Connection

Another innovative tactic that should be employed in the meaningful delivery of vocational education involves pathways to higher education. Specifically, a Johns Hopkins University Institute of Education Policy report (Passarella, 2018) calls for "opportunities to earn college credits and industry-recognized credentials or certificates" (p.7) and Vice President Biden (2014) has found that "regional partnerships that span the private and public sectors have seen success in improving the alignment between training and work" (p.23).

This approach, involving support from schools, districts, and states, ultimately requires the granting of college-level credit validation at the regional or national accreditation level. For instance, Utah Valley University has worked to build a "K-16 Alliance" that delivers articulated pathways and curriculum from high schools to the technical college to the university (UVU, 2019). In this case, each entity works together to ensure a seamless transition in the curriculum while ensuring students receive college credit, regardless of where their instruction was delivered (UVU, 2019). As of this writing, there now exists the opportunity for students at Mountainland Technical College to transfer their coursework to Utah Valley University for up to 156 earned college credit (MTECH, 2020).

To achieve the ultimate in meaningful currency for students and parents, college credit, the university has had to negotiate with and demonstrate success to their accrediting body, the Northwest Accreditation Commission. Without the active engagement from the schools, the district, the technical college, the university Deans and Professors, and the regional accreditation body, this innovative program would not work.

Industry Engagement

The concept of a more direct connection to industry is widely recognized as an essential component of vocational education. For instance, since many businesses find that an "important factor for businesses locating an expansion site is the availability of skilled labor" (D'Amico, p.192), many economic development professionals use the education system within their locale as a primary carrot for corporate expansion. These businesses, eager for employees, should find a helpful partner in their local vocational institution.

Many partnerships like this exist already. For instance, at Mountainland Technical College, we have 575 advisory board members from industry who help write our curriculum and ensure our practices are up to current standards (Utah State Legislature, 2020). And from these relationships, many work-based learning opportunities and partnerships evolve. For instance, the JHU report (Passarella, 2018) considers "work-based learning opportunities such as internships" (p.7) as a fundamental anchor for an effective vocational program. However, rather than simply promote the "career ready" pathway as so many vocational marketing departments are wont to do, JHU recommends that programs should instead celebrate and implement "mastery of industry-specific skills for industry-specific work" (Passarella, 2018, p.7). Promoting the delivery of a "mastery" set of industry-driven skills, JHU argues, is more useful and engaging.

Beyond clever marketing approaches, vocational programs at all levels must be connected to industry. JHU research suggests that having business and industry representatives validate the CTE curriculum for certificate-level education "better prepares students for employment" (Passarella, 2018, p.7). The Council on Occupational Education, which accredits post-secondary vocational programs across the United States, now mandates that each program within a vocational discipline has an industry-supported curriculum (COE, 2019).

One example of this is a new partnership Mountainland Technical College has with the Ford Motor Company (MTECH, 2019). In this partnership, Ford Motor Company provides curriculum support, in-kind equipment donations, and internship opportunities with the precise design of employing their interns upon program completion (MTECH, 2019).

Another example of a powerful industry/education partnership exists with the Business Higher Education Forum, which is working to forge public-private partnerships that expose students to career pathways (Fitzgerald). One of their successes is a vocational cybersecurity program run through the University of Maryland, where local cybersecurity companies help build an industry-specific curriculum for the school, and the university promotes the pathway regionally (Fitzgerald). This is a wonderful demonstration of industry engaging in employing "earn-and-learn" (Schray and Sheets, 2018, p.150) strategies to build more reliable connections between employers, students, and workers.

Final Thoughts

Ballantine et al. (2017) note that technical and "community colleges are more likely to enroll academically less well-prepared students, minority students, part-time students, economically less well-off students, commuter students, older students, and first-generation college students" (p.415). And despite opportunities at these institutions for all socioeconomic situations, these demographics may well hold in perpetuity. However, that does not mean that vocational education is less valuable. D'Amico et al. (2015) note that many businesses are looking to fill good-wage, middle-skill jobs that "require significant education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor's degree" (p.192).

Vocational institutions can help support their missions and increase their value proposition by forging powerful partnerships across the education spectrum, with local businesses, and the broader community to find innovative ways to break free from federal funding silos and barriers. If a potential student, regardless of their socioeconomic or academic background, can attain a meaningful career that supports their needs and provides value to the community, the unpleasant perceptions which currently relegate vocational training to subservient status compared with traditional higher education will eventually fade away.

Today's vocational schools, especially within the context of the Pre-K -16 audience, must provide the fundamental tools of learning necessary for students to succeed both socially and occupationally. This is especially true for at-risk students who may lack the academic self-efficacy to succeed in a traditional setting.

Technical and community colleges should also recognize and seize their unique opportunity to inspire students to become well-rounded and inquisitive lifelong learners. After all, we already know that these students come pre-packaged with determination and grit. Vocational institutions would be served well by mirroring the traits of their students with the vigilance to build partnerships, bridge divides, and embrace their critical role of public service while keeping a watchful eye on the overall development of their student-body.


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