This blog post is published jointly with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), and also appears on the CLASP blog.
Skills advocates can inform and improve the upcoming planning process for Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs by analyzing information about the demographics and needs of adult postsecondary students. Incorporating this information can also help to ensure that planning is responsive to the needs of businesses, as many adult postsecondary students are already engaged in the labor market.
Too often, conversations about postsecondary CTE assume that most participants are progressing directly from high school CTE classes into a postsecondary program. The data indicate otherwise. The average person in a postsecondary CTE classroom is an adult in their late 20s. He or she is more likely to be economically disadvantaged and more likely to be Black or Hispanic compared to the U.S. population overall. This population is likely to have work and family responsibilities that younger students may not.
Fully understanding who is in our CTE classrooms is especially relevant as states prepare to implement the newly reauthorized Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the Twenty-First Century Act, commonly known as Perkins V.
State leaders should consider the economic, age, and racial makeup of their postsecondary CTE populations to ensure their programs are responding to the specific assets and needs that these learners bring to the table.
What do the data tell us?
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education (ED), roughly 3.7 million postsecondary students participated in CTE courses in 2016-17.* They were primarily enrolled in community colleges and technical schools, which serve a disproportionate share of low-income students and students of color.
Among these students, 1.6 million, or 44 percent, were considered economically disadvantaged. This is a far higher share than the overall percentage of working-age Americans who live in poverty. Students of color were also disproportionately represented in CTE courses, with 21.2 percent identified as Hispanic and 13.2 percent identified as African American.
ED’s Perkins Data Explorer unfortunately does not include age data. However, the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study shows that postsecondary students whose field of study is CTE on average are 26.3 years old.**
It is important to note the average age difference among races/ethnicities: African American students average 28.7 years of age, while Hispanics average 25.1 years. More information is needed to understand the importance of these differences for policy and practice.
Specific details of this demographic data vary by state. But as state leaders and skills advocates begin the Perkins V state planning process, the above overview provides a jumping-off point for discussions about their postsecondary CTE populations.
What can state leaders and advocates do?
- Advocate for sufficient CTE resources that are allocated as appropriate given state needs. At the national level, approximately 40 percent of Perkins funds are allocated to postsecondary CTE, but this level varies substantially across states. Advocates should encourage state policymakers to carefully consider ED’s question in the state plan template --“What is the right ‘split of funds’ between secondary and postsecondary programs given today’s environment?” -- and ensure that the state has designated appropriate resources to support postsecondary CTE learners. Stakeholders can also advocate for additional investments in CTE by state and federal policymakers.
- Ensure that state Perkins V plans outline on-ramps for working adults to postsecondary CTE programs. Postsecondary programs can ensure access for working adults in a variety of ways. In some cases, even secondary CTE programs can partners with adult education providers, as in this example from El Paso, Texas.
- Bring allies to the table to spark new ideas. Perkins V now requires states to include their adult education state director as part of the planning process. States can draw on the expertise of these adult education experts to ensure that their postsecondary CTE planning reflects the abilities, needs, and interests of adult learners.
- Capitalize on resources available from national partners. The nonprofit National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity has an array of resources that help postsecondary CTE programs respond to the needs of students of color. Similarly, Advance CTE has published a number of materials on equity issues, including four briefs on how advocates can address the harmful history of tracking low-income students and students of color into low-quality CTE programs, and ensure that high-quality CTE programs of today are helping to achieve greater racial equity.
- Draw on state and local data to inform policy and planning conversations. Advocates can use the Perkins Data Explorer tool to better understand their state’s CTE student demographics and identify areas for further exploration or study. Other local data sources can help to flesh out this picture and illuminate how the system may be excelling or struggling to reach a particular population.
Ultimately, state Perkins V planning should consider the characteristics of older postsecondary CTE students who may have more significant work and family responsibilities than their younger peers. Policies that mistakenly assume most students come straight from high school without these responsibilities will not incent practice that best serve all students.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this post reflect CLASP’s analysis of information from the Perkins Data Explorer.
** CLASP analysis of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16).