Urban Wire Practical Strategies for Advancing Racial Equity in Online Career and Technical Education
Izabela Solosi, Amanda Briggs, Shayne Spaulding
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Two students working on a computer together

In the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision (PDF) that effectively ended affirmative action in college admissions, higher education institutions across the country are seeking ways to maintain and advance racial and ethnic diversity and equity.

These efforts extend to career and technical education (CTE) programs at community colleges, many of which serve students of color. Community colleges offer a transfer pathway to four-year colleges, and their CTE programs provide essential technical skills, which facilitate access to jobs and careers across fields such as manufacturing, business administration, and information technology.

But CTE programs’ accelerated shift to online and hybrid environments over the past few years brought to light deep inequities for students of color enrolled in online education. To address these inequities, an Urban-led coalition of six national partners supported 12 community and technical colleges as part of a two-and-a-half year, multistep equity action planning process to understand how racist historical, systemic, and institutional factors drive gaps in outcomes for students of color and to develop practical strategies that address these challenges and support student success. This effort was supported through a grant from ECMC Foundation.

The project culminated with a public event Urban hosted. Here are three strategies panelists from Chippewa Valley Technical College, Diablo Valley College, Olive-Harvey College, and WSU Tech implemented to advance equity for students of color. CTE programs looking to advance race equity goals in their colleges can implement similar approaches.

1. Use data to understand student challenges and design programming that meets their needs. 

CTE CoLab colleges shared student data with Urban researchers, which we disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and other characteristics to understand how racial equity gaps affect student success. This information also raised opportunities to gather additional feedback from students (PDF) and instructors to inform strategy development. At Olive-Harvey College, student feedback helped Akilah Easter and her team identify that a “major hurdle for students [in the Cannabis Dispensary Operations certificate program] was getting to campus…by walking to a bus stop in a neighborhood where it’s dangerous”. As a result, the college worked to identify safe modes of transportation to campus and “created three core classes as asynchronous [to address this] major hurdle.”

At Diablo Valley College (PDF), while Black student enrollment has increased, their average success rate in fully online courses for their art digital media program was 59 percent, compared with 72 percent for white students. (There were similar gaps for Filipino, Latinx, and Native American students). Instructor Anne Kingsley shared, “The college wanted to understand what was happening,… [so we] reached out to students through a student survey (PDF). The students wanted to tell us how they felt we were doing, their barriers to success, [and] things that instructors or the program did that made them feel successful.” Survey results showed that students benefited from instructor feedback, scaffolding project milestones, and instructor flexibility. To address the issues, Diablo Valley College developed a faculty training to share student feedback, as well as strategies to access specific course data, normalize flexibility, and create assignments that allowed for instructor feedback.

Similarly, other colleges used student feedback to identify opportunities to increase awareness of existing resources and develop new supports for their students and faculty.

2. Increase technology access and normalize digital literacy skill support.

Colleges identified that access to technology for online learning—such as computers and routers—as well as the varying level of digital literacy skills as critical to supporting student success and ability to persevere with their learning.

Chippewa Valley Technical College staff found that families of color have lower average family incomes in their area, and approximately 50 percent of program students receive financial aid (PDF). Knowing this, information technology software developer and instructor Kevin Harris shared that the college took a two-pronged approach to supporting students: “The first thing was to negotiate with a local computer company to get discounts for students for our program and then expand it to our entire college. [Second], in our introductory course, instead of having a remedial program where students who came in felt ashamed or like they somehow were inadequate to join this program, we normalized it by having all of our students go through [assignments that taught] these basic digital literacy skills.”

3. Support students entering the industry through strong relationships with employers. 

Several colleges noted the importance of partnering with employers to align course curriculum with job needs and support students entering the workforce. Building these relationships can be slow, iterative work, but it’s an opportunity to show employers the benefits of a diverse workforce training pipeline that represents the local community.

In WSU Tech’s machining program, over a third of enrolled students are students of color. The local community and industry demographics (PDF) for this occupation are less diverse, with only 15 percent of the workforce identifying as Asian, Black, or Latinx. To support students entering the workforce, Scott Lucas, vice president of manufacturing and institutional effectiveness, shared the school’s focus on “trying to find industry partners that have some unique practices and getting them more involved in the program. We want to have that discourse with industry partners to say this is what we’re trying to do here [in implementing equity practices].… One approach is bringing in guest speakers, not just management and HR and those folks that sometimes come to our advisory committee meetings, but having our former graduates, workers, and those frontline people that our students are going to be [interacting with to make] those type of connections.”

How do you build on what works to make meaningful change?

Equity work often involves trying to address big, systemic issues, which can feel overwhelming. CTE CoLab colleges emphasized that everyone in an institution has a role to play, and change can start with one person, in one class. As Harris said, “It doesn’t need to be big. You don’t need to receive a grant like we did to do equity work. What you need to do is listen to your students and share that information with other people… everyone has people at your college with the word student in their title.… If you’re interested in equity work and you feel like you’re the sole person, you can make changes that will have a big impact. You’re not alone, we’re all going through this.”

An emerging lesson for the field is that, over time, by connecting and sharing ideas with others working to advance racial equity, institutions can implement bigger changes that lead to real improvements for students.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education
Tags Inequities in educational achievement Racial equity in education School-based partnerships and services Job training Postsecondary education and training Technology and future of learning and training Workforce development Youth employment and training Racial and ethnic disparities
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
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