The blog of the Urban Institute
May 5, 2021

The COVID-19 Pandemic May Have Changed College Career and Technical Education for Good

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted education and training at all levels and has changed many colleges’ views about what can be taught online. College career and technical education (CTE) programs prepare students for careers in manufacturing, welding, and nursing, and more—skills that colleges and the field previously thought required in-person instruction.

But our new research shows this model could permanently shift. In December 2020, we fielded a rapid-response survey in partnership with the CTE CoLab coalition to community and technical colleges within our national partner network. Nearly 70 colleges responded with reflections on how the pandemic influenced program delivery among for-credit postsecondary CTE programs, in addition to opportunities, challenges, and other factors that influenced program delivery. The survey revealed that many programs that require in-person training are expected to move to a hybrid format—combining online and in person content delivery—following the pandemic. 

Programs will embrace hybrid learning after the pandemic

Before the pandemic, community colleges had been increasingly embracing distance education (PDF) because of its flexibility and accessibility. Our survey findings show the pandemic may have accelerated this trend among college CTE programs. Many college staff surveyed anticipated shifting their programs toward hybrid delivery following the pandemic, especially for licensed practical nursing (30 percent shift from in-person delivery to hybrid), manufacturing technologies (28 percent shift), and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning programs (26 percent shift).

As programs continue to move online, college staff will need to consider factors that could affect the quality, accessibility, and delivery of postsecondary CTE programs.

Lessons from colleges about shifting content online

Open responses to the survey highlighted the following opportunities and challenges related to online learning that programs can use to guide their decision making as they plan for the fall:

  • Increase access to technology and broadband. Nineteen percent of survey respondents indicated online programming delivery minimizes barriers to student access, allowing students to learn from anywhere, as long as they have the necessary technology tools and internet access. Respondents shared that lack of access to technology, privacy, and high-speed internet connection at home would undermine the effectiveness of online learning for students and instructors.
  • Provide digital skills training for students and professional development for instructors. Respondents emphasized the need for programs to train students and instructors in digital skills so they can teach and learn effectively. Twenty-nine percent of respondents shared that moving online would provide an opportunity for instructors to update their teaching methods, but they would need professional development to be successful.
  • New virtual work-based learning and better simulations. Although 42 percent of respondents indicated that issues with hands-on activities and training presented challenges for CTE programs during the pandemic, 18 percent of respondents indicated that shifting coursework online provides opportunities for new technology and better simulation, which may allow students to experiment with virtual hands-on learning environments. Colleges should seek to identify high-quality simulation software and other technology tools that meet the needs of faculty and ensure students are mastering essential knowledge and skills when engaged remotely.
  • Maintain quality standards in an online environment. Thirty-two percent of respondents indicated that the pandemic accelerated a transition online that would have happened anyway. Survey respondents also mentioned the importance of maintaining quality standards as programs and instruction shifts online. It will be critical that colleges find quality virtual platforms for class instruction, applied hands-on learning, and skills assessments.
  • Ability to serve students flexibly and reach new groups of students. Sixteen percent of respondents shared that online programming has offered more flexibility for students, including students with full-time jobs, students with children, and students who live far from campus. Seven percent of respondents indicated that transitioning program delivery online would increase access to new student markets, which could help with the decline in student enrollment at community and technical colleges. Enrollment is down nearly 10 percent in spring 2021 compared with a year ago.

Bar charts showing the top five challenges and opportunities raised in the survey related to online delivery of postsecondary college career and technical education programs

Planning for online CTE in fall 2021

As more people get vaccinated and restrictions loosen, college staff are starting to plan their next steps. Colleges have had a year of experience providing online education to their students, even for traditionally in-person programs. This shift is generating new awareness of the opportunities and challenges that come with transitioning online.

As community and technical colleges continue to offer or begin offering online programs for the coming fall semester, our research can help them consider how to maintain the quality and accessibility of their online and hybrid CTE programming. This could potentially help them boost student enrollment and retention while more effectively addressing student needs.


The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

Show your support for research and data that ignite change. 

Mayur Kakade / Getty Images

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.