The Road Less Traveled: Realizing the Potential of Career Technical Education in the California Community Colleges

February 2011

Potential of Career Technical Education Mission is Not Fully Tapped 

The Career Technical Education (CTE) mission of California’s community colleges is not well understood by policymakers in comparison to the transfer mission of the colleges. This exploratory study, to be followed by a more comprehensive research agenda, is motivated by the belief that CTE is a vital piece of the college completion agenda but is not receiving sufficient attention. While students can be successful in CTE in ways besides earning a certificate or degree, the issuing of workforce-related credentials is an undeniably important function of the colleges.

CTE is important to the college completion agenda because it can help California:

 Meet completion goals
 Meet workforce goals
 Meet equity goals
 Increase postsecondary productivity
 Realize benefits of high school reforms.

California is not yet poised to take full advantage of the potential of the CTE mission area because CTE is generally characterized by:

 A lack of priority across the system n Weak credential structures and transfer pathways
 Underdeveloped data and accountability systems
 Higher costs that are not well addressed
 A lack of integration with core institutional operations.

There is solid evidence of good job prospects for students with certificates and associate degrees in career fields. Student interest in vocational coursework is high, with 30% of course enrollments in vocational courses. Yet of the more than 255,000 degree/certificate-seeking students in the 2003-04 entering cohort (defined as enrolling in more than 6 units in the first year), only 5% earned certificates and only 3% earned vocational associate degrees within six years.

Key Findings: Apparent Lack of Priority on Technical Credentials 

As a basis for exploring CTE more generally, we studied patterns of student enrollment and progress in four high-wage, high-need pathways (information technology, engineering technology, engineering, and nursing), visited CTE programs, interviewed faculty and staff, and reviewed college catalogs and other materials. We know we can’t generalize to all programs in all colleges, given the great variety in both, but the following findings strike us as important to any effort to understand and improve student outcomes in CTE programs.

1. Data constraints limit knowledge and college actions. The absence of provisions for students to declare a program of study seriously impedes efforts to understand and improve student success in CTE programs because it is difficult to know which students are pursuing which programs.
2. Good student progress is not translating into credentials. Few certificates and degrees were awarded despite considerable student progress. Far more students accrue 30 or more college-level credits and pass degree-applicable math than the relatively few who earn certificates or degrees. Additionally, more students completed at least 60 transferable credits than the number who transferred.
3. Pathway structures do not promote attainment of technical credentials. A picture emerged of CTE pathways that do not reflect a high priority on career-oriented credentials or on sequencing lower-to-higher credentials within a field. The route by which entering students are expected to attain the basic skills needed for their programs was unclear. There was no strong pattern of students attaining credentials in the chosen field of study, with the great majority of associate degrees in interdisciplinary studies rather than in a technical field. There is a huge variety of programs in some fields and an equally huge variation across colleges in unit and programmatic requirements for the same credential. Few students who transferred earned associate degrees and few who earned associate degrees earned certificates.

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