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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

How Guided Pathways Can Reform Career and Technical Education

Students working in a robotics classroom

Despite the fundamental role career and technical education plays within community colleges, it is often isolated from important national community college reform trends. The growing consolidation within the community college sector around the guided pathways approach presents a major opportunity to integrate career and technical education into an institutional reform, which would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of this important mission of community colleges.

The guided pathways movement is less than a decade old. While there are many variations to this approach, in the main, the colleges that have begun implementing it have correctly concentrated upon the process elements within their institutions. These include the creation of broad meta-majors for students and, for each meta-major, a sequence of classes that students should complete; significant counseling interventions, often starting before the student registers for classes; and many forms of engagement to promote student awareness of the importance of goal setting and progress toward completion of degrees and other credentials of value. This work has led to some significant and promising successes for both liberal arts and career and technical education that are documented in a new three-part series of CCRC publications: What We Are Learning About Guided Pathways by Davis Jenkins, Hana Lahr, John Fink, and Elizabeth Ganga.

But it now is important to focus upon a substantive dimension to guided pathways reforms. A coherent and well-developed progression of classes needs to have knowledge validity—that is, students need to learn relevant subject matter so they can fulfill their goals. For some liberal arts courses, this bar is met through well-prepared faculty who are familiar with their subject matter, keep up to date with developments in their field, and are able to continue to hone and develop their skills. However, those offering career and technical courses have an additional burden to consider: How well do their programs meet the current—and more importantly, future—needs of employers within their communities? Career and technical education must be relevant to the employment and earnings outcomes of the students.

There may be two interrelated aspects to this question. The first is whether the career and technical programs of community colleges reflect the ever-changing reality of the labor markets they are situated in. While many large, primarily urban or suburban, community colleges have the resources to remain somewhat current, the bulk of small and mid-sized colleges are faced with a significant dilemma. Given a decade or more of funding declines to community colleges in most states, it is likely that many community college career and technical programs have not managed to keep up with some of the technical changes in the occupational sectors they educate and train students to work in.

This is especially true in areas where information technology has been integrated into health, manufacturing, and business sectors. For example, few colleges have the capability to deal with the impact of big-data issues at the workplace. In many colleges the information technology programs are maintained as discrete career and technical programs, while most companies integrate information technology skills into their various business units, resulting in significant IT demands in jobs related to medical record technologies or mechatronic technology. Truck-driving programs remain traditionally focused, neglecting the potential impact of autonomous vehicles. Police academies rarely focus on cybersecurity. Artificial intelligence raises another dimension for many programs—particularly in the areas of accounting, marketing, and graphic and commercial design. The shift in many industries away from metals to composites, aluminum, and even additive manufacturing is not often reflected in construction and manufacturing curricula. These issues arise partly from the lack of resources at the colleges to retrain and update their full-time faculty in many of these areas. Most rely on part-time faculty, hired out of industry, with mixed results.

The second part of the question is the relationship of these new skills and the foundational liberal arts courses. With the exception of allied health areas, most career and technical programs lack a consistent integration between their skills programs and their “foundation” or basic liberal arts and sciences areas. Most do not require these classes for certificates, and even if students want to complete a degree, faculty consider them add-ons to be done after they complete their technical program sequence. This is a mistake not only because survey data clearly indicate that most career and technical students wish to obtain a four-year degree, but also because the evolution of many of these occupations means they will soon require four-year degrees. Even in work-based learning programs, such as apprenticeship, particularly the younger students view the programs they are in as a first step toward a four-year degree. It is striking how differently the “flagship” community college career and technical programs, such as nursing, handle the progression into their fields. A typical community college nursing program starts with many science and biology courses, as well as English and mathematics, before students even enter the field-specific courses—the broad preparation is necessary before mastering the specific areas of nursing. It would be very beneficial for other career and technical areas to consider this approach.

To meet these challenges in career and technical education will require significant resources and a focus upon today’s workplace as curricula are redesigned. This will require new efforts, but it has the potential to result in employers becoming new “stakeholders” in guided pathways efforts. Guided pathways reforms encourage colleges to “backward map” their programs by starting with careers and designing programs that teach the skills that prepare students for those careers. Employers can bring their knowledge not only of the current needs for technological skills but also of what is evolving in their industries. It could also propel colleges to start a much needed process of focusing their career programs upon the real employment patterns in their communities and responding to the growing significance of four-year degrees in most occupational sectors for any real advancement. Perhaps one of the reasons for the decline in adult enrollment in community colleges, particularly among those already in the workforce, is that adults do not believe the current programs are valuable for teaching the skills they will need in their jobs in the future. Reorganizing the substance of career and technical programs will take considerable institutional leadership and resources, but it clearly needs to be on the agenda if the goals of guided pathways are to be achieved.

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