Linking College and Work: Exemplary Policies and Practices of Two-Year College Work-Based Learning Programs

Publication April 1996

Two-year colleges in the United States have a long history of providing work-based learning, especially in association with occupational-technical education. Recently, the nation has placed greater priority on strengthening school-to-work transition programs involving work-based learning by linking secondary and postsecondary curriculum. The federal School-to-Work Opportunities (STWO) Act has stimulated increased activity in the form of local- and state-level work-based learning policy and program implementation. Given this trend, it is important to examine existing work-based learning in the context of two-year college education. Understanding the features of highly effective programs can assist policymakers, practitioners, and scholars in the development of new work-based learning policies, practices, and programs.

This study was conducted over a two-year time period from January 1, 1993, to December 31, 1994. The overall purpose of the study was to obtain a better understanding of existing work-based learning policies, practices, and programs in community, junior, and technical colleges in the United States. Phase One of the study, conducted in 1993, was a census survey of the nation’s 1,200 two-year colleges to describe the scope and character of work-based learning programs already in existence, including the key features of what local administrators considered their best health and non-health programs. Readers interested in results of Phase One of the study are referred to Work-Based Learning in Two-Year Colleges in the United States (Bragg, Hamm, & Trinkle, 1995).

The purpose of Phase Two of the study, conducted in 1994 and documented in this report, was to gain a more in-depth understanding of selected exemplary work-based learning programs. The Phase Two research involved field-based case studies designed to provide qualitative observations and in-depth analysis of two-year college work-based learning programs in the United States. The study examined a range of work-based learning models and occupational-technical education programs, and it documented the quality of the programs from the perspective of various stakeholder groups, especially students, faculty, and employers.

Using survey data gathered during Phase One of the study, eight two-year colleges were identified for further in-depth analysis using qualitative methods. Case studies were conducted by a ten-member team made up of personnel representing the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE) and the National Council for Occupational Education (NCOE). A data collection protocol and semistructured interview procedures were introduced to all team members during a two-day training session. Field visits were conducted by a two-person NCRVE-NCOE team to each of ten work-based learning programs in eight two-year colleges. Following the field visits, case study reports were drafted by each team to provide the basis for a day-long debriefing session held in conjunction with the NCOE annual meeting. At this meeting, the major findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the study were generated. Following the debriefing, the case study reports were finalized and combined to create this report.

Based on a careful, multistage selection process, involving extensive data collection and a panel of experts, the following ten work-based learning programs were identified for the study:

  • Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Salisbury, NC – early childhood education, using the clinical-professional and school-based enterprise models
  • Wenatchee Valley Community College, Wenatchee, WA – tree fruit production, using both the co-op and school-based enterprise models, along with Tech Prep
  • Phoenix College, Phoenix AZ – management/marketing, using the co-op model
  • Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City, MI – resort management, using the co-op and school-based enterprise models
  • Delgado Community College, New Orleans, LA – culinary arts, using formal apprenticeships, and radiologic technology, using the clinical-professional model
  • Columbus State Community College, Columbus, OH – culinary arts, using formal apprenticeships, and nursing technology, using the clinical-professional model
  • Rock Valley College, Rockford, IL – manufacturing technology, using the youth apprenticeship model, along with Tech Prep
  • Tulsa Junior College, Tulsa, OK – manufacturing technology, using the youth apprenticeship model

The programs ranged in size from only ten students in a Manufacturing Youth Apprenticeship Program in Illinois to over 300 students in the Early Childhood Education program in North Carolina. Students who participated in work-based learning programs in two-year colleges are primarily adult students ranging in age from 25 to 35 years. This was true for all the programs except the Youth Apprenticeship Programs where the students were 18 to 19 years old. Enrollments in particular occupational programs were related to gender. Nearly all the students in early childhood education, management/ marketing, and the health occupations were female. The vast majority of students in Tree Fruit Production (agriculture) and the Manufacturing Youth Apprenticeship Programs were male. Minority students were enrolled in all of the programs, but not to the extent one might expect in some locations. For example, in one region where a large minority population resides and works in the dominant industry, only 4% of the students in the work-based learning program associated with that industry were minority. A similar phenomenon was identified in other settings, although not to such an extreme. Finally, although the percentage of Pell grant recipients was known for only a few of the programs, in all of these, approximately 20% of the students received Pell grants.

Although quantitative results regarding program effectiveness were sketchy, some information was accessible. Outcomes data provided by local administrators portrayed the programs as highly successful at transitioning students into the labor force in training-related employment, often into the same firms used for work-based learning placements. Four programs reported 100% job placement rates, and two others provided rates of 95% and 80%. A health program indicated a 100% licensure passage rate. These outcomes are very positive and local leaders were eager to share them. In fact, most of the local stakeholder groups showed pride and enthusiasm for their work-based learning programs, even when outcomes related to educational or academic attainment were less apparent. For example, program completion or graduation rates ranged from 4% to 67%, but most programs reported graduation rates below 15%. The rate of matriculation from high school to a two-year college was 67% for one Youth Apprenticeship Program. Only two programs reported a transfer rate to the four-year college level. The Nursing Technology Program showed a 21% and the Restaurant Management Program reported a 35% transfer rate. Little or no data was provided regarding other educational outcomes such as academic, occupational-technical, or workplace skill attainment.

The research team documented numerous strengths as well as limitations for the ten selected work-based learning programs. A very important objective of the study was to identify common factors, elements, phenomena, activities, and issues that could help to distinguish or explain exemplary policies and practices of two-year college work-based learning programs. The research team focused attention on this objective from the start and was successful in identifying a set of factors thought to contribute to the overall effectiveness of two-year college work-based learning programs. These factors are described briefly here and in more depth later in this report.

  • Strong program leadership entails an individual or small group of individuals who serves as the leader(s)/director(s) and ensures the ongoing success of the program. Strong program leaders/director(s) possess a deep knowledge of the occupation, and they have formal education, credentials, and related work experience. They are actively involved in day-to-day program operations, frequently circulating in local firms where students are engaged in work-based learning. Strong program leader(s)/director(s) are excellent managers and politically savvy. Their hard work, visible commitment, and generous contributions of time and energy keep programs alive and vibrant, and these are essential qualities in a time when education and industry is changing rapidly.
  • Exclusive connections between the program and its environment is another factor. The location of the program relative to its industry is a critical factor that operates in three ways: (1) the programs capture the major share of the training market because other competing programs are small and/or ineffectual, (2) the programs are extremely closely connected to the local industry for which they prepare employees, and (3) the programs are perceived as having a direct impact on the local economy since well-qualified employees transition easily into local companies where they are immediately productive.
  • Frequent and effective communication with local employers was the essence of the kinds of “close” relationships needed to sustain work-based learning programs. The relationships are nourished by formal and informal communication mechanisms that are carefully planned or sometimes simply emerge out of necessity. Seemingly, the more college personnel and employers/employees are in contact with one another, the stronger the relationship grows. Often the work-based learning programs are bolstered by education-employer partnerships that produce spin-off programs to other parts of the college curriculum, including customized training. Extremely close ties between the two-year college and local employers result in nearly all of the programs providing an “exclusive” training ground for entry and sometimes also middle-level jobs.
  • Beliefs about program excellence help to perpetuate the idea that a work-based learning program is successful and that students and graduates are held to high standards. These beliefs may represent a cultural phenomenon that emerges, at least in part, because of the complex and fluid organizational structure that accompanies work-based learning programs where different stakeholders play crucial roles at different times. The sharing of beliefs of excellence is beneficial to the exemplary programs in several respects. It bonds the various constituencies together and sustains a commitment to the programs. It provides a common understanding of the significance of goals and outcomes, and it helps to perpetuate a positive reputation. Yet, these beliefs may also have limitations because of their potential to limit openness to new ideas, thereby creating a closed system. When this occurs, efforts to reach out to new and diverse stakeholder groups, especially students, may be stifled. Actions to expand or modify in keeping with economic, technological, or societal changes may be diminished. Also, mechanisms to collect rigorous evaluative information in an objective manner may be viewed as superfluous since “everyone knows the program is successful.” Local program leaders should monitor “beliefs about program excellence” continuously to ensure they are contributing to keeping the programs vital and effective.
  • An effective school-based learning component ensures the programs maintain support from other college personnel and upper-level college administrators. Exemplary programs are well-connected to the rest of the college curriculum, maintaining prominence within the mainstream of campus life. Programs that operate successfully within the structure of the college are supported fully by the occupational-technical and academic curricular functions as well as student support services. Two-year colleges operating school-based enterprises as a part of the work-based learning program seem particularly well-situated to maintain a close linkage with all other curricular activities. A primary advantage of locating the program toward the center of the college is to ensure a fair share of resources and heightened visibility with other internal personnel.
  • Adequate and diverse financial support is critical if two-year colleges expect to maintain a sufficient funding base to support existing and potential work-based learning programs. An important benefit of having adequate and steady streams of funding is the ability to create an environment where long-range planning can occur and program growth can be predicted and managed. Exemplary programs seek funding from local, state, and federal sources as well as from the private sector. The nature of private support is usually in the form of providing equipment and supplies, designating personnel to monitor or supervise students working on-site, allocating dedicated space within their facilities, and awarding funds to support student stipends and scholarships. The latter form of support is especially apparent in Youth Apprenticeship Programs where local firms contribute several thousands of dollars toward sponsoring youth apprentices.
  • Innovative program and pedagogical features such as multiple teaching, learning, and support strategies are very evident in exemplary programs. Their presence helps to support the notion that teaching- and learning-associated work-based learning is indeed practical, realistic, and applied, while also being academically challenging. Included among the multiple strategies identified in this study are structured individualized plans for student success, college and workplace mentoring systems, articulation agreements from the secondary to the two-year or four-year college levels, a mix of work-based learning models and pedagogical strategies, and personalized documentation combined with formal assessments and standardized performance-based competency profiles.

The factors associated with work-based learning provide insight into the key features of successful programs. We would be remiss, however, to fail to report some of the more troublesome concerns that emerged from our field research. Many of the issues identified by the research team were not altogether unique to this study, but reinforce concerns already known. Yet, in some of the cases, the issues raised are different from those reported in extant literature sources because they address concerns with promulgating work-based learning within the two-year college setting. The issues identified by the research team relate to the proper positioning and sequencing of work-based learning within students’ learning programs; problems with too few, inadequate, or poorly prepared and monitored worksite organizations; employer preferences for adult workers and perceptions of problems with engaging youths in serious work-based learning experiences; potentially discriminatory practices associated with selecting students from large pools of applicants; and excessive demands on students because of the extension of college curriculum beyond normal expectations.

Finally, six recommendations are offered by the NCRVE-NCOE research team, primarily to policymakers at all levels of government as well as to local practitioners. These recommendations take into consideration the unique needs and contributions of two-year colleges relative to the creation of coordinated workforce preparation systems at the local, state, and national levels. The recommendations are directed toward the provision of adequate and stable funding; the need for educators to play a more prominent role in preparing employers and employees to provide meaningful work-based learning experiences; the increased recognition of postsecondary work-based learning opportunities, especially for adults; the merits of reconfigured and strengthened co-op education models where adult students take responsibility for monitoring more of their own learning as well as that of others; the need for senior college administrators to show more active and visible support for work-based learning; and the need for more systemic approaches involving the creation of standards and credentialing mechanisms and state or regional delivery strategies.

Bragg, D. D., & Hamm, R. E. (1996, April). Linking college and work: Exemplary policies and practices of two-year college work-based learning programs. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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