Skill Builders: Expanding Who Benefits from Short-Term Training. Presentation excerpt by Kathy Booth, WestEd, October 2022. From a longer presentation given with Peter Bahr, University of Michigan, at the California Community College Association for Occupational Education Conference.
I wanted to start out the presentation today by talking about adult learners in general. In CTE, we’re really familiar with talking about students that are not traditional, meaning that they’re a little bit older when they come to our institutions. And that’s because if you look at people who enroll in CTE courses, they tend to be older on average than others. Oh, great. Here’s the slide.
We have an interesting moment right now, because many of our colleagues are becoming more interested in older students, and that’s because enrollments are declining. As I’ve worked with data over time, enrollment is always the metric that people are most interested in. And I think the reason why is if you don’t have students, you can’t actually do your job, so it’s very important that we’re paying attention to this. We’ve got a demographic shift that’s happening in most parts of the state right now where there are fewer people that are graduating from high school, and yet we have this fantastic opportunity, because there are a lot of adults in California that have very low levels of educational attainment, meaning that they only have a high school diploma or some college, maybe a certificate, and we could be growing our enrollments by focusing more purposefully on folks that are in that experience, where they have some experience with education, but we could give them a lot more.
The reason why it’s really important to do that is the truth about earnings. What we know is that if you get a higher level of educational attainment, so if you go from certificate to associate’s degree, from associate’s degree to bachelor’s degree, you see that earnings go up over time, and the likelihood that you’re going to make a living wage gets much higher with each level.
It’s interesting because we’re having a moment right now in the political discourse that is questioning this thing that has been shown to be true for a very long time. And people are saying, “No, no, no, no, you don’t need to get a degree. It’s fine to take a couple of classes. A certificate is sufficient.” And while it’s true, a couple of classes and a certificate are very, very important for maintaining local economies and giving people a pathway out of poverty, it is not as effective as getting all the way to the bachelor’s degree. This becomes a real concern, because as we are trying to help people meet their immediate economic imperative, if we are not looking explicitly at how we can help people advance to higher levels of education, we’re going to be reinforcing historical equity gaps about who makes it to a living wage job.
But this isn’t just about the basics of earnings, it’s also about opportunity and choice. The truth is that if you go work with your centers of excellence or you look at your cast account and you’re looking at the volume of jobs and the variety of jobs that are available in your region, there almost always are more living wage jobs available at the degree level than there is at lower levels of educational attainment and different types of occupations. So as we’re helping our students navigate the difficult tension between what they need right now to get food on the table and what they want to do long-term, we don’t want to constrain them by saying, “Because you’re at this moment of economic need, you get fewer choices.” We want to find a way to open up opportunities for them.
And finally, this really is straight up an issue of equity. Because if you look at educational attainment levels, you see that people of color, people in rural regions, low income people, tend to have lower levels of educational attainment. So if we aren’t expressly addressing this, we are part of the problem. And so what we’re trying to do is… Oops, this has already been advanced. Could you go back to the prior slide? Thank you. It’s really important that we are looking at that opportunity to get people to bachelor’s degrees no matter where they’re starting. And that’s not normally how we talk to our students, or we think about things internally. We tend to say, “Oh, there’s adult ed over here and CTE over here, and then we’ve got the degree and transfer pathways.” Okay, go ahead to the next slide.
One of the things that’s interesting that I’m hearing right now is people saying, we need enrollments, let’s go find some adult learners. And I think, well, that’s interesting. There’s a lot of people over the age of 25 in your community, but because we tend to divide people into these categories of traditional and non-traditional students, we tend to lump a lot of adult learners together. But as you know, that doesn’t make any sense. Because people that we might be trying to reach who are older adults come from a variety of circumstances and need different services in order to get to their goals.
I’ve just put three examples up here that reflect the diversity of the types of adults you might be trying to reach in your community. You could have someone like John, who’s had very little success in either school or work, who’s been in and out of justice involvement and who has very few social ties to anchor him. What he needs is going to be dramatically different than Asha, who actually has a lot of experience. She’s got a credential. She just doesn’t have the technical English that she needs to get a job, and she’s navigating family responsibilities. And her needs are going to be radically different than Luis, who’s someone who’s been working for a very long time, is coasting along in his career and doing okay, but can use some additional skills to be able to move up to the next level. And if we aren’t designing with the needs of those different circumstances in mind, we’re unlikely to be effective at reaching adult learners. Next slide, please.
Okay. The other thing that makes this really difficult is we also have siloed systems of service delivery and funding that makes this even worse. This is a highly simplified chart, this is the chart, that really looks at the different ways that we do service delivery. For example, adult schools are where we tend to work with recent immigrants, and the work that we do with them really focuses on language attainment if you look at the actual courses that our adult schools offer. What’s interesting is that there is some workforce preparation work that we do in there, of course, some GED programs, but the CTE stuff tends to be about preparing to be employed. It’s not teaching specific skills. WestEd actually looked at catalogs from all over the state, and that was one of our key findings.
You think about that person who’s in the adult school like Asha, maybe she gets to a better place with English, but then how is she supposed to navigate into maybe adapting her IT skills to the specifics of the job market? Well, she now has to hop to an entirely different system with a different set of rules. Then you’ve got the workforce boards, and that’s a little bit of a challenge because their mission is basically to get people into work. So if you’ve got someone who’s unemployed, that’s fantastic. They get them into any job, usually an entry level job, which means that they maybe can get food on the table or move out of their car, but that isn’t really built to help get them onto these longer term pathways where we know the living wage jobs are.
And then you’ve got community colleges, and then we have so many options. It becomes very difficult for students to understand what they’re supposed to be doing. We’ve got non-credit and credit, and then within credit, we’ve got all sorts of different options. But the ones that we’re used to certificates, degrees, transfer, but we also know there’s a lot of students that are just taking a couple of classes in our institutions. And that’s the population that I want to focus on today. Those are the skills builders, the ones that are taking one or two classes.
We’ve done a lot of work on skills builders here in California. Peter and I originally identified them in some research that was done coming out of the great recession, and there’s been a lot of times we’ve presented, but I know that not everybody knows what a skills builder is. So does anyone want a hazard a guess as to who skills builders are? You can just shout out an answer.
Yeah, people who come and take one or two classes, learn a skill and are able to translate it right away into a higher income. Any other characteristic of skills builders? Yes.
They don’t necessarily finish the class.
They may not even finish the class.
They grab the skill and they do what they need to do next.
Their goal is to get to the next step of their career, not to get a degree.
People who want information, information about what?
People are looking for new ways to do their current job, so they’re looking for that opportunity that we talked about earlier.
The idea that you might move from architecture to something more applied, so learning how to use CAD as a way to begin to explore into different career options. Those are great examples.
Getting a technical skill required for the workforce. Yes. These are all things that are true about skills builders.
If we look at the research, what it basically comes down to is that skills builders are folks that enroll in community college for a very short time, one or two semesters. They take relatively few credits, usually less than nine. They’re mostly attending part-time. They take most of their classes in the CTE fields, and they are highly successful at their coursework. While there’s definitely some who pop in and out and leave, those who stay tend to be getting really high grades showing that they’re really mastering the skills that you’re teaching.
We also have the benefit. Back in the end of the great recession, Peter and I did research here in California identifying this population, but we weren’t really sure how prevalent they were. Was this just a function of what was happening because of shifts in the economy? Did this happen in other states where it costs more to go to community college? So in the intervening years, Peter and his team at the University of Michigan did research in three additional states, which he’s going to outline for you in just a moment. And he found that skills builders are consistently a pretty big share of who goes to community college. This is true across states, this is true across time, this is true across different economic moments. So as you’re talking to your colleagues about skills builders, I think it’s important to say this is not a flash in the pan. This is an ongoing population that we could be cultivating more specifically, particularly as we’re looking for ways to grow enrollment.
We do see that on average skills builders are older than the overall student population, which makes sense, because if you are just grabbing a couple of skills, you’re probably adding on to skills that you already have, whether from prior education or work experience or life experience. We do see that skills builders are disproportionately white men. This has to do something with the disciplines in which we tend to see a lot of skills builders, which tend to be really dominated by white people and men, which really lays clear the way tracking happens in our institutions. Whatever we might be trying to do, people come in with ideas about what fields are appropriate for them and what jobs they might want to train for, and we see that represented in where people are choosing to do skills building.
There definitely is a big chunk of people who are skills builders that have some prior education. These are your repeat customers who are coming back that said, I learned something valuable at this college and I’m going to come back and I’m going to learn a little bit more. We do know that they usually leave college without a credential or transferring, so that idea, they are just coming in for something that’s very tactical and moving on. And that we do see that on average they’re getting meaningful earnings gains for that very short time in college, so very high ROI. And Peter’s going to explain some of the specifics of what those numbers look like.
That’s what we know factually about this population. And I think this is really important because, I first found out about skills builders when I was working on the CTE outcome survey in early days. I was spending a lot of time talking to folks just like you about what they wanted to know about their students when they left. And a lot of people said, it’s really frustrating. We have this completion agenda, which is focused on whether people get to a certificate or a degree, but I have all these students that come and they take a couple of classes and they learn and they go get a great job, they’re telling me about that, but they’re counted as failures. And when we dug into the research, we found that it was exactly what the faculty were describing, it was exactly what the CTE professionals knew, but the rest of your colleagues didn’t know. So I think it’s really important to be sharing findings like this to say, oh no, this is not my imagination. This is actually a sizable segment of the population that we serve that we could be doing more for.
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