As the nation emerges from the pandemic’s deep recession, we now face a tight labor market and the opportunity to realize a more equitable economy. Online career and technical education (CTE) programs in community colleges are well positioned to help meet the demand for workers and to provide access to opportunity for those who have historically faced barriers to economic security.
However, these programs are often not set up to meet all students’ needs, especially students of color. Our research shows systemic inequities limit success for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. We found Black and Latinx students have lower grade point averages, complete CTE programs at a lower rate, and have lower earnings six years after program entry than their white peers. These gaps are worse when programs are offered partially or fully online.
To build knowledge, advance racial equity, and close these gaps, the Urban Institute is leading the CTE CoLab and College Community of Practice (CTE CoLab). It is funded by ECMC Foundation, and we are working with five national organizations: the Office of Community College Research and Leadership, World Education, the National Council for Workforce Education, the Instructional Technology Council, and the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers. At the center of the CTE CoLab is a community of practice of 12 community colleges focusing on advancing racial equity in their online CTE programs.
Over the past two years, we’ve learned that a critical first step in advancing racial equity is developing shared understanding of the problem as a basis for developing solutions. Here are six key terms in the context of online CTE community college programs.
- Racial equity is the process of eliminating racial disparities and improving outcomes for everyone through the intentional, continuous work of changing policies, practices, systems, and structures by prioritizing measurable change in the lives of people of color. Equity is different from equality because racial equity acknowledges that different people have different needs and circumstances and that “color-blind” equal treatment may not fully address the issues that have contributed to unequal outcomes.
In online CTE programs, this means deliberately examining differences in program outcomes for students of color (e.g., completion, credential attainment, and wages) and then analyzing institutional, program, and course-level policies and practices to see what is contributing to disparities. Our early work showed students of color face even greater barriers in online CTE programs than in-person programs, pointing to the need for a targeted approach, especially because the trend toward online and hybrid learning is expected to continue.
- Part of addressing racial equity is acknowledging and addressing structural racism, the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain white supremacy.
What does this mean for online CTE programs in community colleges? Historically, higher education was controlled by and designed to serve white men and perpetuate the interest of elites. Racism was a driving factor in higher education policy at the federal, state, and institutional levels, leading to the exclusion of Black, Latinx and Indigenous people. And because of centuries of racist policies, there was and is unequal access to a quality education, the chance to live in safe neighborhoods, and opportunities for quality jobs that promote mobility, well-being, and economic security.
Although community colleges today enroll a majority of students of color, institutional policies and practices—such as ones that direct students of color to programs with limited economic prospects in a labor market in which occupations are often segregated by race, ethnicity, and gender (PDF)—maintain these inequities.
- Advancing racial equity requires equity consciousness, which is the process of acknowledging that policies and practices have not been designed to produce racial equity and must be changed to purposely promote culturally responsive practices. Equity consciousness (PDF) involves having awareness of one’s own and other cultures, being data informed, and incorporating culturally relevant materials.
A focus on equity consciousness in online CTE programs requires not only getting students of color access to the computers and digital skills training they may need but also evaluating their experiences in online CTE courses and how the varied supports offered could inadvertently further inequities. In the CTE CoLab, some colleges are establishing plans for professional development for faculty to educate them about racial equity and structural racism so they can take an equity-conscious approach to teaching and learning.
- The community colleges we’ve worked with told us they have faced resistance in redesigning programs to meet the needs of students of color. Targeted universalism, which involves setting goals for the general population and accomplishing them through targeted, needs-based approaches, could help.
Targeted universalism is not one-size-fits-all but instead actively seeks to ensure the needs of students of color—who are adversely affected by structurally racist systems—are addressed up front. In doing so, colleges can meet every learner’s needs. This requires embedding racial equity at the onset of program design and not viewing it as additive. New online programs can be intentional from the start about meeting the needs of students of color—especially those who are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous—yielding benefits to these students and to all students.
- Historically, efforts to improve outcomes have often taken a deficit-based approach—that is, focusing on individual shortcomings in the design of strategies to improve outcomes for students who are falling behind. Instead, our coalition is supporting colleges to acknowledge how policies and practices are not designed to support student success, how historical and structural factors can explain students’ challenges, and how to take an asset-based approach.
- An asset-based approach employs culturally responsive pedagogies and incorporates culturally relevant materials and assignments. Asset-based teaching consciously acknowledges students’ diversity (e.g., their race, ethnicity, language, and culture) as a resource that provides intellectual capital and contributes to teaching and learning.
This matters as much in the online environment as it does in the classroom, and several CTE CoLab colleges are ensuring people of color—including students, field leaders, and experts—are appropriately represented in course materials, including those on online platforms. They are also working to design programs to be more culturally responsive by accounting for different learning styles and implementing equitable assessments of student learning.
Developing a shared understanding of the problem may seem basic, but it is an important step in advancing racial equity in CTE programs. We look forward to exploring the practical application of these concepts and additional steps community colleges can take.