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Building a Pathway for Occupational Students

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Thomas Bailey and Davis Jenkins of TC's Community College Research Center shared thoughts on postsecondary opportunities for occupational students.

Building a Pathway for Occupational Students
By THOMAS BAILEY and DAVIS JENKINS

In February, the Bush administration eliminated from its proposed budget the Perkins Act, which provides support for vocational and technical education. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has argued that there is no evidence that it is effective, and the administration's goal seems to be to shift support to the No Child Left Behind program.

Legislators continue to support occupational education. In March the Senate unanimously passed a bill for the reauthorization of a Perkins Act similar to the existing measure, and passage of the House version looks favorable, although Perkins could still be cut at the appropriations stage.

It now seems likely Perkins will survive its threatened elimination, but such a possibility has created an opportunity to re-evaluate its role and how the federal government should be involved in occupational education. Two key issues have generated controversy. First, do the programs supported by Perkins help students get good jobs? Second, does enrollment in vocational programs discourage students from continuing toward associate or bachelor's degrees and preclude their chance of obtaining higher economic returns in the long run?

Congress originally passed a version of the Perkins Act in 1917. Through many reauthorizations, the last in 1998 as the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, the law has distributed money to the states, each of which allocates its share according to a plan approved by the Education Department. Expenditures on Perkins are more than $1-billion a year; about 60 percent of the funds are spent at the high-school level, with the rest disbursed to community and technical colleges. Perkins money is used for vocational curriculum materials, occupationally relevant equipment, materials for learning labs, staff development and hiring, career counseling and guidance, remedial classes, and the integration of occupational and academic education.

Today the focus of vocational education is increasingly shifting from training for jobs to preparation for careers and further education. Growing evidence suggests that most young people entering the labor market must have some college education to secure jobs paying much more than subsistence wages. While workers with associate degrees make more on average than those with just a high-school diploma, those who complete bachelor's degrees have even stronger economic potential. Meanwhile, employers increasingly demand workers who have not only technical expertise, but also skills in language, communication, problem solving, and applied math. Thus, while "terminal" occupational degrees that do not transfer to a B.A. program are still common in community colleges, educators and state policy makers have been working to encourage transfer through common course-numbering systems and by merging technical colleges and comprehensive community colleges.

Strengthening subsequent postsecondary opportunities for occupational students has profound implications for educational equity. Low-income students are more likely than their middle-class counterparts to enroll in community colleges rather than four-year colleges and to enter occupational programs. Low-income community-college students also tend to be concentrated in one-year certificate programs instead of associate-degree programs. Even those who are in degree programs are more likely to be in occupational than academic programs. And, within each of those levels, low-income students are less likely to graduate.
That reflects the extreme differences in the quality of elementary and secondary education available to students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Lower-income students also usually need a job at an earlier age than middle-class students, so they seek a credential that will be immediately useful rather than pursuing a liberal-arts program that leads to a B.A. Further, first-generation college students, in particular, may not think that they have a realistic chance to complete a B.A. degree. Other students may simply be more engaged by concrete occupational instruction than by more abstract academic education.
How then can we ensure that vocational education not only leads to good jobs, but also prepares students of all backgrounds for the next level of education? That is the fundamental question that we must ask about occupational education at all levels.

In responding to it, educators face a number of formidable barriers. One is the difference in content and structure between associate and baccalaureate education in occupational fields. Traditionally, the first two years in a baccalaureate program are rather theoretical and focus on gener-al-education courses that presumably prepare students for their subsequent specialization. Associate programs must include the technical and applied courses in their two-year span and tend to place more emphasis on practical knowledge and skills. As a result, the typical preparation for an associate degree in engineering technology will not be equivalent to the first two years of a four-year degree in engineering, and often credits from community-college courses do not transfer to the analogous four-year program.

Meanwhile, many bureaucratic barriers stand in the way of community-college transfer. Transfer among institutions even within the same state system is often difficult, and community colleges often must negotiate individual transfer agreements with each college. Moreover, institutional data systems are not connected so that they can track student movement from one college to the next.

Helping to overcome the substantive and institutional barriers that tend to block upward mobility for occupational students is an ideal role for Perkins and the federal government. Support should be designed particularly to encourage colleges and states to ensure that the vocational programs supported by Perkins prepare students for occupations for which there is a local demand and prepare them to move on through the higher-education system. States should be encouraged to use Perkins to reward schools and colleges that are successful in preparing low-income students to enter and succeed at successive levels of employment and education.

We already have much to build on. The Education Department has supported research for programs that tie high schools to community colleges through dual-credit arrangements.

This article appeared in the April 15 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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