A Sourcebook for Reshaping the Community College: Curriculum Integration and the Multiple Domains of Career Preparation. Volume I: Framework and Examples

Publication October 1997

Over the past several years, community colleges and technical institutes have attempted to meet employers’ demands for graduates competent in the “new basic skills” required for organizational effectiveness by integrating academic and occupational education. But the variety of skills necessary for students to master and for community colleges to impart are different and much more comprehensive than either basic academic skills or conventional occupational courses convey. One purpose of this monograph, then, is to identify and describe areas or domains of competency that address the needs expressed by employers, the skills students need to progress through postsecondary education and the labor market itself, and the knowledge that educators have always wanted for their students.

These domains are as follows:

  • Foundation academic competencies–reading, writing, calculation, and science competencies learned in the way in which they are applied in everyday practice
  • Education for citizenship education–the economic, political, and social aspects of work
  • Job specific/technical skills–the technical and production skills required for a particular occupation
  • Career exploration–the match between self-knowledge and labor markets
  • Systems utilization skills–understanding the big picture of how diverse personnel, time, capital, material, and facilities interact to shape an organization’s performance
  • Generic technical skills–tools for designing and analyzing organizational systems, including software applications, recordkeeping procedures, interpretation of visual data representations, quality assurance techniques, and occupational and public safety standards
  • Workplace organization experience–the commonalties between all other domains and an actual work setting

Although colleges have traditionally attempted to prepare students for careers through general education, its distributed structure of independent courses and prevalent lecture teaching and assessment methods make it a weak approach to the competencies we have identified. Innovative institutions have devised other ways of incorporating these domains into their curriculum, including infusing foundation skills and work-related applications into existing courses; blending academic content with career perspectives in hybrid courses; linking academic and occupational courses and perhaps work-based learning into a cluster or learning community of students and faculty; authentic forms of assessment by which students demonstrate a variety of communication, mathematical, technical, and systems utilization competencies; and work-based learning which allow students to connect the knowledge learned in school to actual practice.

With the exception of the job specific domain, some version of which every college has in place, we found that colleges are most likely to adapt courses in reading, composition, math, and science to the career preparation needs of students. To incorporate career preparation into transfer level courses, colleges have experimented with writing-intensive occupational courses, as well as hybrid courses which apply ethical or career- related themes to literature and composition, and clusters of courses connected by an occupational or technology theme. Sections of courses “especially appropriate for” career clusters maintain traditional outcomes and academic rigor, at the same time they incorporate texts, learning activities, and student assessments related to usage in everyday practice. Two approaches are predominant at the Associate degree level: infusion of work-related applications into academic courses and of reading, writing, and math skills into occupational courses; and “applied academics,” which are either occupational courses with an academic bent (Pharmaceutical Math, Police Science Report Writing) or academic courses with an occupational focus (Business English, Technical Physics). In addition, a few colleges have taken advantage of natural overlaps between concepts and their practical uses to link courses (i.e., medical terminology and anatomy and physiology). At the developmental level, learning communities in which a cohort of students concurrently enroll in a cluster of occupational and academic courses with language support offer access to career preparation for individuals whose low basic skills block their way to economic advancement.

Generic technical skills tend to be offered as stand alone computer or quality management courses, rather than their more powerful use as tools to complete serious work-like simulations or culminating projects. Capstone courses or projects demonstrating a student’s ability to plan, execute, and present a work-like product encompassing all aspects of a production or service system are valuable instruments for communicating to students themselves and to potential employers what they know and are able to do.

Career exploration is the least frequent domain formally addressed by community colleges, a particularly worrisome finding since many students use the college to experiment with the options available to them, “milling around” in unfocused courses of study until they find an area of interest that matches their personal attributes. Colleges have been slow to publish retention, graduation, and placement outcomes for each course of study so that students can understand the employment outcomes they might expect from a certificate or degree; we found only one college which did so.

Although new federal reforms such as the School to Work Opportunities Act recommend that programs incorporate both school- and work-based learning, few colleges require or even offer internships or cooperative education for technical students; almost none offer work-based education for liberal arts majors; and only one college in this survey had a well-developed mechanism for connecting the two forms of learning. Connecting activities or seminars are critical for helping individuals see themselves as students in both settings–in the classroom and in the workplace–beginning a valuable foundation for life-long learning.

Education for citizenship separates “job training” from “education,” and we have seen numerous examples of innovations which demonstrate that adapting liberal arts courses to the career interests of students need not reduce their rigor or the integrity of their content–career preparation and citizenship education need not be independent of one another. Innovative colleges have integrated the knowledge of political, economic, and cultural dimensions of our society with work-related perspectives, helping students find connections between career preparation and the humanities and social science component of the general education sequence. For students pursuing career goals, adapted social science and humanities courses are especially promising, since occupational students often postpone or avoid these general education requirements, precluding them from degree completion.

This monograph describes, and the accompanying volume provides examples of, exemplary programs that avoid the separation between theory and the practice of a variety of competencies on a variety of scales. In addition, we outline implementation strategies that colleges have found successful for workforce development reform, which call for participation and support from both administrators and faculty–a top-down design pattern coupled with bottom-up authority to plan and execute reforms. Every college described barriers and uncertainty in the process of devising innovative programs. However, the potential benefits are enormous because the results would be two-year colleges that can provide their students, and the employers for whom they will work, the full range of competencies required for the modern world.

Badway, N., & Grubb, W. N. (1997, October). A sourcebook for reshaping the community college: Curriculum integration and the multiple domains of career preparation. Volume I: Framework and examples. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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