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Connecting community college CTE and degree pathways gives students a clearer sense of belonging, purpose and direction

Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathways are crucial for economic equity and mobility. With February being Career and Technical Education Month, there’s no better time to talk about the importance of recognizing the value of CTE pathways, creating more cohesion between non-credit CTE programs and degree pathways, and fostering more parity in the student experience.

Career and Technical Education provides learners of all ages and backgrounds with the tangible skills and knowledge they need to move into a career path that leads to a quality job. According to Luke Rhine, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Career, Technical & Adult Education (OCTAE), U.S. Department of Education, “Nationally, there are more than 3.5 million learners enrolled in postsecondary CTE programs. States and institutions of higher education have the potential to position CTE as a catalyst to blur the lines between high school, postsecondary education, and paid work experiences to help students earn postsecondary degrees and industry credentials that our employers need, and our economy demands.”

Though high in number, these students all too often find themselves stranded on the sidelines of community college conversations and deprioritized against credit programs. CTE programs are regularly forgotten in discussions about guided pathways, even though they are often the starting point for the most-in-need students at the institution. This is a lost opportunity — for the students, the community, the workforce, and the community colleges themselves. It’s high time for change.

Needed support for CTE pathways

Numbers show that the CTE student population is sizable, both in terms of enrollment and contribution. Though CTE and workforce education is not tracked or reported on in the same way as the credit side, these students often comprise up to half of overall community college enrollments and bring in an impressive amount of funding, both from federal programs and from employer partners. CTE programs also deliver great outcomes. For example, see the impressive results from a recent Iowa Department of Education Iowa Student Outcomes Report, which conducted a study of a non-credit CTE student cohort program of nearly 5,000 students:

  • Quarterly median wages increased by over 8% after completing a CTE program (from $8,717 to $9,421)
  • 91.1% of students were employed after their cohort year

Many statewide initiatives focus outcome reporting on degree attainment, but by including completion of non-credit programs in the outcomes, a more comprehensive economic picture comes into focus.

CTE through the eyes of a researcher

So how could CTE and non-credit departments collaborate more closely with their counterparts on the degree side of the institution in order to make CTE students — many of whom are experiencing their first touchpoint with college — feel that sense of belonging and support that’s missing now? To find out, we talked with Michelle Van Noy, Director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers.

Van Noy’s work focuses on researching the intersection between education and work. She researches topics such as quality in non-degree credentialing, outcomes for non-credit programs, and how non-credit data is tracked and stored, as well as the vital link between workforce development and economic development.

The non-credit pathway landscape

Community colleges report having more engagement with employers than four-year public and private institutions have reported, which means that community colleges are in a unique position to create economic opportunity and help drive economic development. According to Van Noy, integrating non-credit CTE programs into guided pathways at community colleges can make even more of an impact in the role they play as economic development catalysts.

She notes that “community colleges have a unique role to play here because they are often seen as this open-access and affordable community resource that are highly focused on building an equitable economy in their community.” But that also means the community colleges need to balance employer needs with student needs – so how can community colleges fuel economic development, and make students feel supported while doing it?

A key part of the challenge is connecting non-credit pathways with more general advising structures and approaches, given the frequent siloing of non-credit programs from the credit side of the house. From what Van Noy has seen in her research, there is often quite a bit of variability among institutions as to how integrated these two sides of the house are at the college. In some cases, they are completely separate entities, which means that non-credit students might not get career coaching or advising support upon enrolling in their program, or throughout their educational journey – often due to a lack of funding and resources for non-credit pathways.

That’s where research like Van Noy’s comes in. She notes, “Part of this research and data collection is motivated by understanding where the community college contribution actually is within workforce and economic development,” which can help community colleges improve their programs and lobby to get more funding and resources to support their non-credit students. Research on the efficacy and outcomes of non-credit programs also helps states, regions and individual institutions measure and define the quality of their programs, ultimately improving pathways for students and making a case for cross-departmental collaboration and support.

Luke Rhine of the OCTAE notes that there is growing innovation in the CTE field – including the ability to take more progressive policy actions through state Perkins plans beginning in 2024 – which can include guided pathway models that intentionally connect credential and degree programs. “These models can also operationalize credit for prior learning through publicly available data and shared practices across institutions of higher education,” says Rhine, “as well as the ability to link enrollment and outcome data for the purposes of institutional research and the coordination of basic needs services.”

As a result of successful program integration, Van Noy says, “the hope is that the CTE students will get lost less frequently along their educational pathway. They will waste less time and fewer resources. They will find their way to better jobs and better opportunities.”

So where to start? Since most colleges already have some kind of non-credit programs in place, Van Noy advises “beginning with what you have, evaluating your gaps, and moving forward from there. The lens should be focused around equity and career development for colleges and how it aligns with initiatives like guided pathways.” Other considerations include:

  • Ensuring that CTE and program pathways align with labor markets, reflect current trends, and build social capital for students
  • Measuring where these pathways lead
  • Making sure students know what their options are through better advising structures
  • Connecting the skills that students gain – short-term and long-term thinking and learning skills along with their technical skills – with the market
  • Encouraging employers to track outcomes

Putting theory into practice

Some community colleges across the nation are already taking tangible steps to integrate CTE programs into a guided pathways model – both to improve the student experience and create stronger collaboration with employers in their areas. Roy Bond, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Workforce Initiatives at Dallas College, has been helping his school figure out how to bring guided pathways into CTE in a way that benefits the learner, the institution and employers.

Several years ago, Dallas College decided to reorganize their institutional operations and place more emphasis on career preparation and meeting the needs of the region's employers. According to Bond, “it’s like they rebuilt a 56-year-old institution from scratch.” This was prompted by the data-backed reality that, while they were calling themselves a transfer institution, only about 35% of their students were actually transferring on to a four-year university – and a much smaller percentage were actually attaining their four-year degree.

Even more unsettling to the school was the fact that the wages their non-transferring students were making were similar to those they could have made with no degree. “In terms of the economic development of the region, we know we have to prepare a workforce to be successful,” Bond explains. “So with that in mind, we thought about how to ensure our programs align with workforce needs.”

Breaking down the silos

Getting to be the lean and nimble institution they are now took some time — and some silo destruction. Where once they had 14 different workforce areas, separated by non-credit and credit pathways and acting as standalone programs in each college, Dallas College now operates under four integrated verticals: Academics, Student Success, Workforce + Advancement, and College Operations. For the student success vertical, they innovated their advising model and hired about 300 student success coaches to be the main points of contact for the students. True to the spirit of the effort, the success coaches aren’t only there for credit-seeking students – there are also continuing education (CE) success coaches specifically for students on non-credit pathways.

Reorganizing to put economic development first

With strong institutional leadership, Dallas College reshuffled their programs with the mindset that, since students are coming to them for two years only, they should work more closely with employers to create pathways that will:

  • Begin with shorter training programs
  • Provide opportunities to work with the credit side of the college in case students want to pursue a degree or credential once they’ve completed their non-credit program
  • Make students feel more integrated into the school as a whole, and ultimately
  • Fuel stronger employer relationships and student pathways to economic success

A true pathway model is an integrated, institution-wide approach based on clear, structured educational experiences — designed to guide each student from point of entry through attainment of high-quality postsecondary credentials and on to careers with value in the labor market. Moving to this model represented a big shift for Dallas College. And it made a big difference, especially for their underserved students.

“We meet the student where they are. We bring what they need to them. We don’t wait for them to come find us.” Bond explains that students who qualified took a wraparound literacy course as part of their pathway – mathematics, financial planning, and more — designed to build their “being a student” skills. “We use that as a place to coach them to understand that you are as much a college student as someone who is coming straight from high school on an academic pathway.” This can be a real mindset shift for non-credit students, who often don’t see themselves that way.

It has also impacted the college’s relationship with employers. “We asked ourselves: who is the real customer? Really, it’s the employers of the region. That’s who pays a majority of the local tax dollars that keep our doors open.” While the school always had good relationships with area employers, they weren’t always as strategic or actionable. Now that the reorganization has prioritized employers and workforce pathways, they have specialized teams that can have more intentional conversations.

A student is a student is a student

CTE pathways are critical in fueling socioeconomic mobility for all types of students across the country. Though their role in community college education is significant for both learner development and institutional outcomes, CTE programs are often disjointed from guided pathways, leaving staff with limited resources and students lacking connection. As more schools follow the lead of Dallas College and begin the work necessary to bolster their Career and Technical Education pathways, the goal is that before long, every non-credit student can feel like what they are: a student.

In order for the attitudes around CTE programs to change, community colleges need to start thinking about them differently. Helpful questions to begin the process may include:

  • How do we recognize the critical work being done by CTE and non-credit programs, which provide educational opportunity to historically excluded students, along with bringing much-needed revenue into our colleges?
  • Which policies and processes need to change in order to treat the individuals in CTE programs as students first, and choose to bring them into our community?
  • And how can we help these students, who are often older and of lower socioeconomic status, feel connected, guided, and like they’re on a path to success?

North Central Texas College is a community college that has implemented coaching, leveraged federal funding in intentional ways, and is implementing InsideTrack’s coaching model with their degree, non-credit, dual-credit and business services teams. Learn more about this unique partnership with InsideTrack.

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