California career technical education funding struggles to make the grade

150 150 Courtney M. Fowler

(photo credit: US NAVY)

The typical idea of achieving the “American dream” of buying a house and raising a family involves getting a four-year degree at a traditional college. But, the numbers show a middle-class job is possible through a career technical education (CTE) program. The problem for California is that college CTE programs are usually underfunded here, despite their importance to the state economy.

“[CTE] is vital to the economic structure, especially in a state like California where there is so much space for jobs that don’t necessarily require an advanced degrees,” said public policy professor Nancy Shulock of California State University at Sacramento. “Vocational jobs are becoming more present than ever.”

Shulock and her colleagues Jodi Lewis and Connie Tan created their study, “Workforce Investments:  State Strategies to Preserve Higher-Cost Career Education” (PDF) to analyze the performance of CTE programs at colleges in 20 states around the country.

“California is really lacking in terms of the importance that is being placed on CTE programs,” Shulock said. “In other states they want to support and cultivate them so that they can continue to grow, but the problem is that here we don’t seem to see how important they are so, we’re a century behind other states in an industry that important.”

Throughout the report, they emphasize the ways different states “celebrate” CTE programs, which provide a classroom experience that’s practical in a way that enhances learning a particular field.

“There’s something special about the way CTE’s educate their students, because I think that they’re in an environment literally puts them in the setting that they’ll be working in,” Shulock said. “They type of setup gives them confidence and allows them to benefit in a way that typical classroom can’t.” 

Her words ring true, judging by the numbers within the state. According to the California EDGE Coalition, of the more than 17 million jobs in California, 14 percent of the positions in 2013 are centered on CTE-relevant trades.

Additionally, they found that the median wages of workers five years after they received an associate’s degree in a vocational career was $66,600 compared to $38,500 for those with non-vocational associate degrees.

Despite the obvious benefits of CTE, there have been issues statewide concerning the funding of these programs. Vocational programs cost more than other community college programs, yet California funds all programs using the same per-pupil formula. Therefore not enough of the programs are created to keep up with the rapidly growing demand.

The difficulty of funding CTE programs and their benefits to the economy were a focus of a state Assembly subcommittee hearing this month.

“Career technical education has the highest earning potential and the highest completion rate hands down,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, speaking in support of college CTE as the California Community Colleges’ vice chancellor of workforce and economic development. “This is not your grandfather’s concept of vocational education.”

Despite their importance to the workforce of California’s economy as a way to fill good-paying, in-demand jobs, CTE funding has declined and enrollment across all systems dropped by 100,000 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to California Department of Education.

“Whether community colleges get more money or less money, CTE’s percentage of it continues to decline,” Ton-Quinlivan added. “You can’t train an emergency room technician without a simulated emergency room. So, if we want colleges to stop eroding their workforce offerings, funds need to offset the high costs of CTE so that they can respond to the work force needs of their region.”

Members of the public waiting to comment at the meeting on CTE funding lined out the door to speak about not only what it means to not only the economy, but to the Californians who are enrolled in these programs.

“If you are ashamed to shop class, you should be ashamed to say jobs,” said California Automotive Business Coalition representative Chris Walker. “As a state, we have institutional bias against shop and blue collar work because we think that’s not good enough and unfortunately the setup of our educational funding here has proven that.” 

Shulock agrees that California doesn’t focus nearly enough energy on the advancement or improvement of CTE programs within their colleges. The researchers found that in contrast to California, 13 of the 20 states have some form of differential funding, whereby state funding formulas take differential program costs into account in funding for institutions.

A primary example of this type of funding is evident through Washington whose CTE programs are funded using a “base plus” funding model, to determine the actual needs of an institution instead of the “per student” concept.

Until California can create more long-term funding fixes for CTE, groups like the EDGE Coalition are advocating for short-term measures, like boosting funding for CTE equipment in the 2014-2015 budget line item for economic development. The Workforce Action Team of the California Economic Summit encourages the state to use a “shared investment” strategy to expand CTE by providing matching resources to regional groups that will work together on boosting these high-priority fields.


Courtney M. Fowler

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