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Community Colleges and Career Technical Education

The governor’s January budget proposal allocates increased funding to support the Strong Workforce Program, which will enable California’s community college system to expand access to career technical education (CTE), commonly referred to as vocational education.

This proposal comes at a time of renewed attention to CTE. The federal 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act focuses in part on improving community colleges’ engagement in workforce training. In California, in addition to the investment proposed by the governor, the California Career Pathways Trust—a pilot program created by 2014 legislation—aims to ensure the development and strengthening of career pathway training programs.

California’s community colleges have always played a key role in providing CTE training opportunities. While CTE training can start as early as high school, CTE at the community colleges provides a closer tie to workforce opportunities—to meet both student and employer needs. For-profit colleges, which offer a number of CTE programs, are under increased scrutiny due to poor graduation rates, mounting student debt, and questions about the value of their degrees—putting even more focus on the state’s public two-year colleges to provide training opportunities in high-demand programs.

Training programs in the health care field are a prime example. The health care sector in California is large and growing, providing essential services to the state’s population as well as employment opportunities to a wide variety of workers. And according to our recent report, nearly 200,000 new health care jobs over the next decade will require some college training but not a bachelor’s degree. Given the state’s interest in serving employment needs and diversifying the health care workforce, it is crucially important to understand the ability of California’s community colleges to effectively train health workers for needed jobs.

Beyond meeting the state’s workforce needs, career technical education also has the potential to substantively improve labor market outcomes for a wide range of students. Research has identified sizable labor market returns to obtaining a career technical credential, and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office makes this information publicly available through its Salary Surfer web tool. But much remains unknown, especially why economic returns vary across programs and student groups and why more students do not complete a credential at all. To ensure recent state and federal investments—and future reforms—are effective, it is important to fill the knowledge gaps on the student, institutional, and policy choices that lead to optimal outcomes.

Perhaps more importantly, if vocational training is to be a viable mechanism for improving economic mobility, especially for disadvantaged groups, we need a better understanding of the most promising pathways. Upcoming PPIC research will examine this very issue, looking at student success at California’s community colleges across health CTE programs and student demographic groups to provide a clearer picture of effective career technical education.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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