Work-Based Learning In Two-Year Colleges In The United States

Publication February 1995

Competition in the world economic marketplace is being fought in the arena of human resources. Countries with education and training systems that provide highly skilled workers have a powerful advantage and America, seeking that advantage, is evaluating her own public and private education systems to determine their state of readiness. Secondary and postsecondary schools are being assessed, and new and heavy expectations are being levied. The expectations set for schools, the sum of which is to lift human resource preparation to the ranks of the world’s best, include a variety of plans and programs at the local, state, and federal levels. Two-year colleges are an undeniably vital part of the nation’s educational system; therefore, it is important to better understand the role they play in future workforce preparation efforts.

This report documents the first of two studies on the status of work-based learning in America’s community, junior, and technical colleges, referred to as “two-year colleges” throughout this report. The intent of this first study was to determine the aggregate depth, scope, and quality of work-based learning in the nation’s two-year colleges. The timing of this research just prior to passage of the federal School-To-Work Opportunities (STWO) legislation provides a baseline from which progress on implementation of new work-based learning programs involving two-year postsecondary education can be assessed. The overarching goal, as STWO legislation overlays the nation’s educational system, is to learn if America has or may soon have in place the structures to meet new federal STWO directives.

With this study, a census design was used to ascertain the scope of work-based learning occurring nationwide. Among other questions, we asked how many programs have a mandated work-based learning component? How many students actively participate in learning that happens in the workplace? What models are being employed? What barriers preclude the growth of work-based learning in two-year colleges? In order to focus the study, a definition of work-based learning was provided along with a list of the most frequently used models (e.g., professional/clinical and cooperative education). By work-based learning (WBL) we mean instructional programs that deliberately use the workplace as a site for student learning. WBL programs are formal, structured, and strategically organized by instructional staff, employers, and sometimes other groups to link learning in the workplace to students’ college-based learning experiences. WBL programs have formal instructional plans that directly relate students’ WBL activities to their career goals. These WBL experiences are usually but not always college-credit generating.

Instructional programs that involve youth apprenticeships, clinical experiences, school-based enterprises, and formal registered apprenticeships are examples of WBL programs.
Additionally, colleges were provided the opportunity to nominate their best work-based learning programs in the health and nonhealth curriculum areas. Of a total population of 1,036 U.S. two-year colleges, a response rate of nearly 50% was obtained. A final data set containing 454 cases provided the basis for this report.

Scope of Work-Based Learning

Results indicate that approximately nine months prior to passage of the federal STWO legislation, many two-year colleges were engaging students in work-based learning experiences, although these experiences were from limited curriculum and program areas. An average of 18% of students in occupational-technical (vocational) education were estimated to take part in work-based learning in the vast majority of responding institutions. In addition, approximately one-quarter of the respondents estimated that a majority of students (55%) involved in customized or contract training were also participating in work-based learning. This result confirms the increasingly important role two-year colleges are playing in delivering customized education experiences at the worksite (Jacobs & Bragg, 1994). Hence, the two areas of vocational education and customized training appear to provide the preponderance of work-based learning for students in U.S. two-year colleges. Other major curriculum areas such as transfer and liberal studies, developmental education, and continuing or community education showed evidence of work-based learning but were much less likely to employ such models on a wide scale.

Nationally, several programs/disciplines were identified where work-based learning was a required component of a student’s program of study. We identified more then 60. However, although work-based learning was documented in a wide array of programs, it was not found on any great scale except within a few of the programs. Among these, the health (e.g., nursing, radiologic technology, respiratory therapy) and business (e.g., office management, business administration, marketing) curriculum areas were predominant. In fact, nursing was the only program area to require work-based learning by the majority of responding institutions. Conspicuously absent from the list of top programs requiring work-based learning were those linked to manufacturing and high tech programs including computer-aided design and drafting, electronics and electrical technology, information processing, mechanical design, metalworking/tool and die making, environmental technology, microcomputers, quality control, and telecommunications. This discovery is of some disappointment as these sorts of programs seem critical to the manufacturing and service industries and work-based learning would appear to enhance students’ understanding of occupations associated with them. However, many factors are likely contributors to this phenomenon including the nation’s past economic difficulties, changes in the ways manufacturers and service industries utilize workers, and a lack of awareness about work-based learning among these industries. Within two-year colleges, competing internal priorities linked to diminishing resources is another likely factor.

Bragg, D. D., Hamm, R. E., & Trinkle, K. A. (1995, February). Work-based learning in two-year colleges in the United States. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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