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Advancing Equitable Outcomes Through Earning and Learning in a Post-Pandemic World

by Dr. Marci Rockey / Feb 9, 2021

Highlighting the value of career and technical education (CTE) as part of CTE Month

As I reflect on our work to advance equitable outcomes in Illinois community college CTE programs, one practice that holds significant potential to close equity gaps is the expansion of paid work-based learning experiences.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 62% of full-time students and 72% of part-time students are working while enrolled (AACC, 2020). Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has especially disrupted both teaching and learning in CTE programs of study.

Dr. Morna K. Foy, president of Wisconsin’s technical college system, explained in a recent interview that students in CTE programs are balancing the raising of children at home and are unable to attend school in person. A lack of affordable child care and potentially working more hours where they can find employment to make up for lost income further complicate their education goals. (Archer Kent, 2021).

Employers identify a shortage of qualified workers while community colleges identify working more hours while enrolled in a CTE program as a barrier to student completion."

Throughout my years of working in and with community colleges, I frequently hear that employers identify a shortage of qualified workers while community colleges identify working more hours while enrolled in a CTE program as a barrier to student completion. While the solution seems clear, complications arise in practice, especially in some high-wage, high-demand programs constrained by accreditors that require clinical or internship experiences to be unpaid. This has implications for advancing equitable outcomes in CTE across Illinois, given that students enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs are more likely to be from historically underserved populations, including Black, Latino, low-income, and/or nontraditional-age students (Carnevale et al., 2020).

As we think about stratification within CTE programs of study, in all 16 states with the highest percentages of Black residents (including Illinois), Black students are overrepresented in certificate completion (Carnevale et al., 2020). Innovative partnerships between employers and colleges to implement high-quality paid work experiences in CTE pathways could make progress toward closing these equity gaps.

At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 2020 National Apprenticeship Act to bolster support for registered apprenticeships with a focus on creating new opportunities in technology and health care fields (Dembicki, 2020). However, the bill does not allow federal funding of industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs), creating a barrier to bipartisan support (Dembicki, 2020).

In addition, the U.S. Education Department has launched the Rethink Adult Ed challenge to advance opportunities for pre-apprenticeships (Dembicki, 2021a), and the new administration is advocating for better partnerships across federal agencies to address educational and economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Dembicki, 2021b).

Experts working in the technology sector that historically lacks racial and gender diversity point to three ways that apprenticeships can advance equity (Hernandez-Lepe & Marotta, 2021). These include diversifying peers, teachers, and mentors; creating nontraditional pathways into these careers; and highlighting the economic benefits of a diverse workforce to employers (Hernandez-Lepe & Marotta, 2021).

At the local level, community colleges should begin to explore opportunities for paid work-based learning in high-wage, high-demand programs. They may or may not take the form of pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeship programs. For programs that require unpaid work-based learning, colleges should provide targeted support to alleviate financial stressors for students trying to balance these requirements with paid employment and/or dependent care.

Expanding opportunities for students enrolled in CTE programs to learn while earning competitive wages has significant potential to advance equitable outcomes. Advisory committee meetings could be ideal settings to lay the groundwork toward implementing these partnerships. However, if the advisory committees themselves are homogenous by race and gender, intentional efforts must be made to broaden access and participation. In addition, colleges could explore how to leverage resources across the various stakeholder groups involved in the comprehensive local-needs assessment (CLNA) process.



American Association of Community Colleges (2020). Fast facts 2020.

Archer Kent, K. (Host). (2021, January 28). Shifting enrollment patterns at technical colleges [Audio podcast episode]. Wisconsin Public Radio.

Carnevale, A. P., Garcia, T. I., Ridley, N., & Quinn, M. C. (2020). The overlooked value of certificates and associate’s degrees: What students need to know before they go to college. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Dembicki, M. (2021a, January 13). Finalists for ED’s pre-apprenticeship competition. Community College Daily.

Dembicki, M. (2020, November 22). House passes apprenticeships bill. Community College Daily.

Dembicki, M. (2021b, February 4). More coordination needed, Walsh says. Community College Daily.

Hernandez-Lepe, F. & Marotta, J. (2021, February 1). Three ways to improve inclusion and equity in tech through apprenticeship. Urban Institute.