Unlocking Mobility: Building CTE Transfer Pathways

by Heather L. Fox / Feb 14, 2017

OCCRL is celebrating CTE month through a four-part blog series.  This is the second blog in the series.

When you think of a community college transfer student, who are you imagining? Chances are the students you are imagining are not those enrolled in career and technical (CTE) programs. It is time for that to change. While the terminology labeling programs varies, an artificial dichotomy persists between programs that are designed to support transfer and those that are designed to prepare students for immediate employment. The former group of programs, sometimes referred to as academic or transfer programs, typically result in an Associate of Arts (AA) or an Associate of Science (AS). While rarely seamless, intentional efforts are made to align these two-year programs with those offered at four-year institutions and to minimize the loss of credits experienced by students transferring between two- and four-year institutions. Students in these programs are expected to transfer to a four-year institution, sometimes prior to earning their associate degree. This expectation is reinforced through multiplex avenues, including specialized programming and pathways, program descriptions, articulation agreements, campus visits, advising and support structures, program structures, and interactions with faculty and staff both in and outside of the classroom.

Nearly half of all students enrolled in public community colleges are in CTE or vocational programs of study (Bailey, Leinbach, Alfonso, Kienzl, & Kennedy, 2004). CTE programs can result in short- or long-term certificates and applied associate degrees. While there are a growing number of pathways within CTE that are designed to support transfer to a baccalaureate program, far more often CTE programs are considered to be terminal and thus designed with minimal consideration of transferability. Generally, students in CTE programs are expected to enter the workforce upon completion of their program. These expectations are reinforced similarly to how the expectations of transfer are related to students in “academic” programs. For example, the descriptions of CTE programs focus on employability, employment rates, specific occupations, and sometimes even highlight specific employers. This focus on employability is evident through the design, staffing, and outputs of CTE programs. While employability is an important aspect of CTE programs, the challenges faced by CTE students interested in transferring and pursuing further education limit their opportunities to engage in career pathways and pursue advanced educational opportunities, as well as, create barriers for them in securing and maintaining financial aid (Fincher et al., 2016; Stone, 2014). While it may not be intentional, the lack of clear and recognized transfer pathways and associated supports for many CTE programs deters students in these programs from pursuing or completing a baccalaureate program (Fincher et al., 2016; Townsend, 2001).

Historically, nearly a third of the students in associate degree programs in applied fields enrolled with the intent of transferring to a baccalaureate-level program (Berkner, Horn, & Clune, 2000, Townsend, 2001).  Further, CTE students transfer at a rate that is comparable to that of students in “academic” programs (Berkner, Horn, & Clune, 2000; Townsend, 2001). With nearly all (96%) of public community and technical colleges offering credit-bearing CTE programs, the number of CTE students impacted by these transfer barriers is staggering (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2004). In 2008, there were approximately 6 million students enrolled in about 30,000 credit-bearing career and technical education programs across 4,000 educational institutions, 68% of whom were enrolled at public community colleges (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2012). Community colleges serve as a gateway to education for many low-income, adult, and minoritized students, and the CTE population within community colleges contains still higher enrollments of students from these underserved populations. In an economic climate where job requirements increasingly require at least a baccalaureate degree and the relationship between educational level and income disparity is increasing, the limits on transferability of CTE programs create barriers that reinforce and contribute to inequities already faced by underserved populations (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; Chase, 2011).

Despite the barriers to transfer, students in CTE programs transfer at a rate similar to those in “academic” programs (Townsend, 2001). However, students in “academic” programs on average have about 50% more transferable course units than students in applied associate degree programs (Chase, 2011).  In cases where there is not a transfer agreement in place, CTE students have a credit loss exceeding 50% when they transfer to a baccalaureate program (Chase, 2011). This credit loss increases the costs and time to baccalaureate completion, and decreases likelihood that they will persist to earn their baccalaureate degree. Monaghan and Attewell (2015) found that the percentage of credits that transfer from an associate program to the baccalaureate program is predictive of the odds of a student earning their baccalaureate degree. They found, when controlling for student characteristics and institutional characteristics, it was this credit transfer that was predictive of completion, not the type of associate degree program students enrolled in. Their study showed that students who were credited for 50-89% of their credits when transferring had 1.8 times higher odds of completing than those who were credited for less than 50%. Further, students who were credited for 90-100% of their credits when transferring had 2.7 times higher odds of completing than those who were credited for less than 50%.

There is also strong evidence that supports the development of articulated pathways between applied associate degree programs and baccalaureate degree programs. For example, one of the objectives of the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant program is to support and encourage bachelor’s degree completion in technical fields through the development of articulation agreements between two-year and four-year institutions. In two years (2004 and 2005), ATE-funded projects reported that 83% of the 484 articulation agreements utilized by students supported the transfer of technical credits (Zinser & Hanssen, 2006). In total, these agreements were utilized by over 1,500 students in technical programs of study. Similarly, the number of the applied baccalaureate programs at both two-year and four-year institutions is growing, especially in STEM and technical fields (Makela, Ruud, Bennett, & Bragg, 2012). These examples can provide guideposts for creating pathways for diverse populations of CTE students in and through baccalaureate education. In addition to these examples, Fincher et al. (2016) suggest that institutions consider the following best practices:

  1. Thoroughly examine accrediting standards,
  2. Conduct an institutional policy review of transfer,
  3. Seek transfer-friendly allies and build relationships,
  4. Determine how to provide the baccalaureate option for CTE students, and
  5. Support and streamline the process, build visibility, and encourage programs that enhance transfer.

First, though, for change to be possible we need to re-conceptualize who our transfer students are, and we need to ensure that CTE students are part of that population. Only then can we honestly step back and understand what systemic changes are needed to build supportive pathways for students to successfully transfer from associate-level to baccalaureate-level programs.