Addressing equity gaps in workforce development

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Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Addressing equity gaps in career and technical education (CTE) and workforce development programs requires a systemic and intentional approach designed to ensure policies and practices support students of color (SOC) in achieving their goals. Improving racial equity through intentional program design and college experience serves to increase participation and improve academic and workforce outcomes for racially minoritized learners.

The National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE) — an affiliate council of the American Association of Community Colleges — is one of five national organizations participating in the Career and Technical Education CoLab (CTE CoLab) initiative. Funded by ECMC Foundation and managed by the Urban Institute, CTE CoLab aims to reduce inequities in academic and career outcomes for students of color — especially students who are Black, Latinx or Indigenous — enrolled in credit-bearing, online postsecondary CTE programs. Although this project has been underway for a year, significant learnings have emerged.

Access to high-quality CTE programs

There is no doubt that as in society, structural barriers and systemic racism are entrenched in CTE and workforce programs. Numerous research studies have shown that white students have better employment and earnings outcomes from community and technical college programs than Black and Latinx students. More often than not, white students are advised into fields of study that offer pathways to jobs with higher wages, while Black and Latinx students often are funneled into low-paying career pathways. Colleges must adopt practices that are equity conscious, examining advising policies and practices.

Data are also critical. Examining access and equity through a historical lens is important to contextualize equity gaps. Colleges must disaggregate their enrollment data to determine if there is segmented opportunity in their workforce education programs. Do CTE and workforce programs reflect racial stratification? Are learners made aware of data to help inform their decisions about pathway choices?

Deficit-framed language also impedes access. When discussing enrollment or completion gaps, colleges in CTE CoLab have found that SOC are oftentimes described as “at-risk” instead of focusing on the strengths and attributes racially minoritized learners bring to the program.

Faculty professional development

Almost all CTE CoLab colleges have identified access to faculty professional development, including adjuncts, as imperative to closing equity gaps. Faculty must learn to infuse equity consciousness and culturally responsive practices into their curriculum and program.

Equity-minded teaching is the acknowledgment that our students are not all the same. They come to us with sometimes vastly different experiences, and those experiences often are tied to their social identities. Culturally responsive teaching focuses on the assets students bring to the classroom rather than what students can’t do. Integrating culturally relevant materials into the curriculum ensures that students see themselves and feel included in their field of study.

Data, data, data and program review

CTE CoLab teams have consistently identified the need for better 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. How is the institution collecting and disaggregating the data? Disaggregated data at the program level can reveal where SOC experience the largest academic barriers. Program faculty and deans can then examine why certain students are having more difficulty than others and utilize the data to navigate corrections and evaluate progress and impact.

Programs also should examine whether faculty and staff demographics reflect their student body and, if they do not, what policies and/or practices must change in recruiting and hiring efforts that increase faculty diversity.

Ask the learner. CTE CoLab colleges have concerns that their institutions do not gather enough data from the students. Data should inform discussions about institutional equity and not dismiss critical insight or expertise from students.

Engaging with advisory committees

Programs and colleges can make a significant effort towards narrowing equity gaps. However, if advisory committees (AC) and local employers are not part of the conversation, program completion may improve, but employment after training may not. It is critical CTE and workforce programs have a conversation with their AC about racial equity. AC members should be made aware of equity in access and equity in student success both in program completion and in employment attainment. When discussing differences between white students and SOC, it is imperative that the conversation regarding these differences are asset-based and not deficit-framed, and are institutionally focused.

The AC must also address equity issues with employers who host high-quality, work-based learning experiences. Disaggregated data regarding participation in, and completion of, work-based learning can assist the AC in making recommendations to improve the experience of students of color. Finally, ACs should challenge their colleagues and peers to address equity issues at their organizations, particularly in hiring practices.

In conclusion, don’t just look at equity outcomes. Be intentional. Consider ways in which changing questions, assumptions and perspectives can improve access and completion.

About the Author

Darlene G. Miller
Darlene G. Miller, Ed.D., is executive director of the National Council for Workforce Education.