The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of society. Millions of people have lost jobs; school, professional, and social activities have transitioned online; and racial and ethnic disparities in health, economic, and social opportunities have widened.
Career and technical education (CTE) programs at community and technical colleges sit at the intersection of these forces. Enrolling more than 4 million students a year, these programs prepare two-year college students for careers in health care, manufacturing, automotive repair, information technology, and other fields. These skills will play an important role during the economic recovery. Like other education programs, many postsecondary CTE programs switched to online course delivery during the pandemic, and many will not go back fully in person even after the pandemic is over.
But postsecondary CTE programs do not provide equal opportunities for all students. Structural barriers and systemic racism are entrenched in the CTE field. Research shows white students and some groups of Asian students have better employment and earnings outcomes from community and technical college programs than Black and Latinx students. One reason is the way white students are sorted into fields of study that offer pathways to jobs with higher wages, while Black and Latinx students are often funneled into lower-yield fields. Black and Latinx students then face the added challenges of programs not being designed to address structural barriers, like more limited access to good schools before college and greater likelihood of being poor, which can affect program outcomes like completion and securing a job. Employment discrimination can further limit labor market success for students of color.
Our recent brief—coauthored with Eboni Zamani-Gallaher of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign—shows that Black and Latinx students earn lower grade point averages, complete CTE programs at a lower rate, and have lower earnings six years after program entry than their white peers. And the gaps are worse when programs are offered partially or fully online. For example, Black students who started in an online CTE program in 2011–12 earned less than half what their white counterparts earned six year after program enrollment, even when comparing students who started in the same program in the same year and eventually earned the same degree.
Addressing racial and ethnic gaps for students in career preparation programs is one of many steps that could help offset the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people and fuel an equitable recovery.
Instructors, programs, and colleges can all promote equity in online classrooms
Strategies to combat disparities in postsecondary CTE programs should focus especially on the racial and ethnic differences in fully and partially online postsecondary CTE programs. Such programs are expanding rapidly, and they offer opportunities for increased access to education and training that would allow students of color to achieve economic security and stability through careers. We developed a framework of equity strategies—based on emerging evidence and current knowledge—for how instructors, programs, and colleges can enhance equitable opportunities in their programs. Core strategies across all levels include the following:
- Infusing equity consciousness. According to Zamani-Gallaher, “Equity consciousness purposely promotes culturally responsive practices that best advance educational opportunities and outcomes for racially minoritized, marginalized students.” This involves examining personal and institutional awareness of students of color and policies that may affect their likelihood of success and then making it so these students can succeed, through steps like examining admissions policies and how students are sorted into programs, ensuring program and course elements are accessible and relevant to students, and making sure students’ needs for support are addressed.
- Explicitly considering how to even the playing field in online learning. Instructors, program administrators, and college leadership should understand the nuances of the digital divide and make deliberate decisions about remote learning so it does not further disadvantage students with worse technological resources or digital skills at program entry. This affects every aspect of students’ experiences, from the expectations for how students engage with the content, to how they engage with the instructor and each other, to how they participate in work-based learning, and to how they access program and college supports.
- Disaggregating and examining data. Understanding students’ demographic characteristics and circumstances and how their participation and outcomes vary is crucial to understanding where opportunity gaps exist and whether they are changing. At the program and institutional level, these data can reveal where students experience the largest academic barriers and which programs or courses present differential challenges for students of color. Colleges and programs can then examine why certain students are having more difficulty.
Programs and colleges can also examine whether faculty and staff demographics reflect their student body and, if they do not, focus on recruiting and hiring efforts that increase diversity.
Tracking students into the labor force, such as by linking to state earnings records, can also help programs and colleges identify opportunities to promote equitable job opportunities, including career advancement.
New opportunities for colleges to promote racial and ethnic equity
The Urban Institute is leading a new initiative, the CTE CoLab and College Community of Practice, to build knowledge and support practice change in this area. The CTE CoLab aims to reduce equity gaps for students of color—especially students who are Black, Latinx, or Indigenous—enrolled in credit-bearing online postsecondary CTE programs. It is funded by the ECMC Foundation, and Urban is working with five national partners: World Education, Inc., the National Council for Workforce Education, the Office of Community College Research and Leadership, the Instructional Technology Council, and the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers.
Community and technical colleges seeking to promote equity can apply to join the community of practice through April 2, 2021. Colleges in the community of practice can advance their work expanding or enhancing equity-centered approaches to online teaching and learning through a focus on a selected credit-bearing CTE program. Selected college programs will receive funding, coaching, and research-informed technical assistance to support participation in a two-year engagement.
All stakeholders in the CTE field have a role to play in expanding equitable opportunities and outcomes for students. The community of practice will provide opportunities for individual colleges to take an equity-centered approach to programs to improve outcomes for students of color while contributing to the development of knowledge for the field on how to support a more equitable recovery for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.