Pathways to Success: Lessons from the Literature on Career Technical Education

December 2009

Growing Interest in Providing Structured Career Pathways

In California and the rest of the nation, there is a growing interest in developing structured career pathways to and through postsecondary education. Interest in career pathways has been increasing for a variety of reasons, chief among them the need to address expected workforce shortages. There is evidence that California is preparing too few people with the skills necessary to fill expected job openings in occupations that pay a living wage.  A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that California could have jobs for one million more bachelor’s degree holders than the state is currently on track to produce (Johnson & Sengupta, 2009). Occupations that require some postsecondary education, but do not require a bachelor’s degree, are also expected to face job shortages. These middle skill jobs represent the largest share of jobs in California and the largest share of future openings (The Workforce Alliance, 2009). Research also points to expected shortages at all levels of postsecondary achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations (Offenstein & Shulock, 2009).

Structured career pathways are also a means to improve social mobility for disadvantaged Californians. Although there have been recent gains in college‐going, changes in the demographic profile of students and increasing numbers of students who are the first in their families to attend college have challenged postsecondary institutions designed to serve traditional college students (e.g., recent high school graduates who attend full time). While intense student services can aid these new college students, the high cost of these services limit their reach to a fraction of those who need them. As a result, completion rates in the state’s broad‐access institutions have been lower than what both students and the state need. Well‐structured career pathways are one set of reforms that could improve student outcomes for many students in a relatively cost efficient manner.

Streamlining career pathways can increase postsecondary education productivity.   A lack of structure in career pathways can result in students taking courses in pursuit of lower‐unit credentials that don’t count towards higher‐unit certificates and degrees. This inefficiency in the accumulation of units has been well documented in the literature on community college transfer (Moore, Shulock, & Jensen, 2009), but may also be a factor impeding student movement from lower‐unit certificates to higher‐unit certificates and associate degrees.  If relevant units don’t carry forward to the next highest credential, the cost to the state and the cost to students in time and money increase unnecessarily.

What are Career Pathways?

A career pathway is a sequence of articulated academic and career courses beginning in high school and continuing through to an industry‐recognized certificate or licensure, an associate degree, or a baccalaureate degree and beyond (Hughes & Karp, 2006; Hull, 2005).  The development and maintenance of pathways require partnerships between secondary and postsecondary educators and employers. Pathways should prepare students for careers and ideally include multiple points of entry and exit so that workers can gain skills as needed during the course of their careers (Jacobs & Warford, 2 2006).  A number of benefits are expected from developing career pathways including reduced high school drop‐out rates, increased aspirations among students, increased college‐going, improved transitions to workforce and postsecondary education, reduced remediation, and increased efficiency of students progressing through postsecondary education.

Career pathways are the latest evolution of career education. In the last few decades, vocational education has been transformed from training students for relatively low‐skilled occupations to educating students for higher‐skilled careers that have greater opportunities for advancement. These changes have been reflected in a change of terminology— from vocational education to career technical education. Newer models of career and technical education (CTE) emphasize the linkages between secondary and postsecondary education and increase the importance of community colleges as a bridge from secondary education to work and more advanced study in college. For example, in the Tech Prep model, students begin education in a particular career area in high school and then continue for an additional two years in a community college (Hull, 2005). Tech Prep programs are structured so that community colleges serve as a bridge between high school and the workforce. In the career pathways model, community colleges not only serve as a bridge between high school and the workforce, but also between high school and baccalaureate education. Community colleges also serve an important role for people already in the workforce who want to return to upgrade their skills by earning a new certificate or associate degree, or transferring to a four‐year university.

The U.S. Department of Education’s College and Career Transition Initiative (CCTI) is one example of a career pathways initiative (Hughes & Karp, 2006). The initiative is designed to help community colleges create pathways from high school to community colleges and four‐year programs and careers. The initiative has multiple goals: improve levels of preparation and academic skills, increase enrollment and persistence in postsecondary education, increase attainment of degrees and certificates, and facilitate entry into further education and employment.

States are also focusing on improving career pathways. Washington’s I‐BEST program is a well‐regarded model for integrating academic education into career education to improve outcomes for returning adult students in need of developmental education. Ohio has developed a framework of “stackable” certificates to integrate remedial education into a series of occupational skills certificates (Community College Research Partners, 2008). In this model, all training by any community college builds so that certificates stack on top of one another and the credits count at any public community college towards a two‐year degree.  In California, the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges has begun an initiative to improve transfer from community college occupational programs to four‐year programs. Career pathways were also an important component of the Ford Foundation’s Bridges to Opportunity initiative which aimed to improve state and local policies so that the needs of adult students are better served by community colleges. The Bridges initiative emphasized that community colleges are key to the success of career pathways because they are well‐positioned to coordinate remediation, occupational training, academic credentialing, and transfer.

To strengthen pathways from community colleges to four‐year universities, states are developing a variety of new degrees and articulation agreements (The RP Group, 2009). For example, some states are 3 developing articulation agreements for applied associate degrees awarded at community colleges that count the units earned in these degrees towards a Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) degree. Another approach taken by states is “upside down degrees” in which students take their technical work at the community college and then complete the general education curriculum at a four‐year university. Additionally, both four‐year universities and community colleges in some states are beginning to offer applied bachelor’s degrees which are more occupationally and technically focused than the traditional bachelor’s degree.

State and national efforts to implement and improve career pathways for students can look to the research literature for evidence on the effectiveness of career‐oriented education in both high schools and community colleges, and for information on how to strengthen CTE to improve student outcomes and better meet the needs of the workforce.

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