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Work-Based Learning in Two-Year Colleges in the United States

D. D. Bragg, R. E. Hamm, K. A. Trinkle

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.

Characteristics of "Best" Health and Nonhealth Programs

Two key sections of the questionnaire asked respondents to nominate their best health and nonhealth programs based on the following four criteria: (1) formal structure which sought programs that had formal instructional plans that deliberately linked the workplace with students' college-based learning experiences; (2) fully operational which meant that faculty, employers, and other organizations were formally committed to carrying out work-based learning for students; (3) a proven track record which required a stream of program completers known to have reached their academic and career goals; and (4) innovative approaches evidenced by use of new and creative strategies in curriculum and instruction, program administration, or partnerships with business, industry, and labor. Based on these criteria, the following ten program areas were nominated most frequently:
  1. Nursing (LPN, RN, & ADN) (220 nominations)
  2. Nurse assistant (82)
  3. Business and occupations (41)
  4. Auto technologies (34)
  5. Engineering technologies - various (24)
  6. Radiologic technology (22)
  7. Cooperative education and cooperative work experience (21)
  8. Agricultural-related programs - various (20)
  9. Early childhood education and child development (18)
  10. Trades, including traditional adult apprenticeships in carpentry, electronics (17)
Together, the nursing and nurse assistant program areas accounted for 76% of the 399 nominations received regarding health work-based learning programs. A total of 322 nominations were received for nonhealth programs and the area of business and office technology topped the list with 41 nominations. An examination of the characteristics of the nominated programs indicated that most were first implemented between 1961 and 1980 making them at least 14 years old. Health programs tended to be older than nonhealth programs. Regardless, the results demonstrate that work-based learning is not a new phenomenon but one that has existed for quite a long time in two-year colleges. Results also indicate that health programs tend to place students in medium-sized firms of less than 500 employees while nonhealth programs tend to place students in smaller companies of 100 employees or less. The number of students enrolled in either type of program was similar, with nonhealth programs having slightly higher enrollments, on average. Health programs enrolled an average of 144 students, and nonhealth programs enrolled an average of 163 students per program.

Interestingly, the number of faculty involved in these programs differed more dramatically than the student enrollments. Health programs had an average of 14 faculty equally divided between full-time and part-time status. Nonhealth programs had half that number with an average of only three full-time and four part-time faculty. This difference becomes dramatic when combined with the following results showing the average number of hours students spent in work-based learning: health--741 hours; nonhealth--770 hours. This apparent inequity suggests that nonhealth programs may be under-resourced in their support for work-based learning relative to health programs. This raises the question of how many faculty are needed to operate a successful work-based learning program. Certainly health programs are operating under the approval of any number of professional (frequently sanctioning) organizations and legal mandates which help to control for favorable student/faculty ratios. Could such organizations have a similar impact on nonhealth programs, possibly brought about by efforts to establish national skills standards? Learning more about the quality of student experiences--a focus of our second work-based learning study--is vital to making informed policy recommendations on workable and efficacious student/faculty ratios.

Also evident from findings is the tendency for health and nonhealth programs to gravitate toward particular work-based learning models such as the following: professional/clinical, cooperative (co-op), school-based enterprise, traditional (formal adult) apprenticeship, or youth apprenticeship. Nearly all of the nominated health work-based learning programs were identified as using the professional/clinical model (97%). In contrast, nonhealth programs typically utilized the co-op model (64%). The remaining nonhealth programs usually reported using either the professional/clinical or "other" model, often described as internships and described similarly to co-op. Models such as traditional apprenticeship, school-based enterprise, and youth apprenticeship were rarely utilized by any of the nominated programs--health or nonhealth. In addition, few programs were identified as utilizing Tech Prep funds or providing formal articulation agreements with secondary schools, a key feature of the Tech Prep model.

Results from the study reveal how specific components related to the federal STWO legislation were employed by programs associated with the particular work-based learning models. Overall, the two models of traditional apprenticeship and youth apprenticeship had implemented the greatest percentage of the twenty-two selected STW components under investigation in this study. This finding is not particularly surprising since initially the STWO legislation was based on an apprenticeship model with at least one early version of the federal bill containing the term "youth apprenticeship" in the title. Nonetheless, it is important to note that these models most closely paralleled the specifications of the STWO legislation. At the same time we must reiterate that programs associated with the traditional or youth apprenticeship models received very few nominations as two-year colleges' "best" work-based learning programs. When they were nominated, few students were shown to be participating in these programs. Moreover, little evaluative data was provided to indicate the efficacy of these programs. Therefore, while the apprenticeship models may contain more of the components of federal policy than other models, their generalizability to the nation's two-year college system appears problematic at this time.

Furthermore, we examined how programs associated with each of the work-based learning models fit with various school-based, work-based, and connecting components mentioned in the federal STWO law. We concluded that few of the models uniformly incorporated such key components as training and credentialing of workplace mentors, inservice of college faculty and staff in work-based learning concepts, formal articulation agreements with secondary schools, and incentives for business. Often, other components such as recruitment of targeted student groups and job placement were lacking as well. Does the fact that colleges' "best" programs lacked such components suggest they are not essential to a successful work-based learning program? This question cannot be answered without more detailed information about work-based learning programs and the ways particular components associated with them contribute to student outcomes. When examining who has primary responsibility for the components associated with work-based learning (i.e., colleges, employers, or other agencies), we learned that colleges have primary responsibility for nearly all school-based, work-based, or connecting components. These responsibilities include the following:

College health programs were reported to have the primary responsibility for nearly every facet of work-based learning, including selecting, instructing, mentoring, assessing, and certifying students. Nonhealth programs were similarly responsible for the vast majority of components, except for the areas of supervising and evaluating students where the responsibility was shared with employers. These results indicate that although some student learning takes place in the workplace, the primary responsibility for the learning process remains that of the colleges rather than employers or other agencies. This suggests deficits in existing work-based learning practices, especially with the role of the worksite and activities connecting the colleges and employers. Clearly, with some exceptions, two-year colleges are expected to take charge of the development and operation of work-based learning, leading us to pose the following several questions: If more students are to participate in work-based learning, how can colleges manage increased demands on personnel and fiscal resources? What incentives could be provided to encourage employers or other groups to play a more pivotal role? and If responsibilities are delegated, what ones should be undertaken by employers or other agencies? Additional research is needed to address these questions. Obviously, for more students to engage in work-based learning, a greater sharing of responsibility must occur among colleges, employers, and other agencies. If this sharing does not occur, colleges will need to develop work-based learning experiences that require fewer resources. Whether alternatives can be employed that can provide equivalent learning experiences is another important question that must be addressed.

Support for Work-Based Learning

When asked to reflect on past experiences with work-based learning, respondents perceived that the highest level of support came from stakeholder groups such as advisory boards, business/industry representatives, state licensing agencies, and college administratorsDall groups with something to gain. In contrast, groups that may have perceived work-based learning as a poor alternative to traditional curricula or even as a threat to their own goals (i.e., parents, labor, four-year schools) were least supportive. Not surprisingly, work-based learning as an alternative pedagogical delivery mode may be stigmatized with the same poor image that vocational education carries in general and this stigma may be contributing to the lack of support by some groups.

Results also indicate that too few resources (time, people, and funding) and too little active involvement, especially from business and industry, were perceived to be the most serious barriers to initiating more work-based learning in two-year colleges. Therefore, while respondents saw many stakeholder groups as supportive of the concept of work-based learning, they viewed some of these groups as making too few contributions to the cause. Obstacles having a moderate or minor level of impact included cooperation with other institutional partners and labor; a lack of faculty interest in and knowledge about work-based learning, and curriculum-related issues such as a lack of integrated occupational and technical education and lack of focus on careers. These findings suggest internal and external concerns are intermingled, with issues on each side influencing the other. Until these barriers are addressed, it seems unlikely that work-based learning will grow substantially within two-year colleges or across the nation's system of postsecondary education. At the least, new and affordable approaches should be explored if the concept is to flourish on a wider scale.

Work-Based Learning Policy Recommendations

Finally, respondents were asked to provide recommendations for how local, state, or federal governments could develop policy to assist with the growth of work-based learning. Without exception, the suggestions provided by respondents were supported by other results. The recommendations sought more fiscal resources for two-year colleges; more incentives for businesses to join work-based learning partnerships; increased promotion of work-based learning, particularly to business and parents; clearer standards and guidelines emanating from the state and federal levels; and more support from local, state, and federal agencies as well as professional associations. It is our belief that policymakers at all levels should seriously consider the advice of the two-year college practitioners responding to our survey, a group already experienced in delivering work-based learning and likely to understand issues surrounding its expansion.

Phase Two of the Work-Based Learning Study

Using the data gathered from phase one, eight two-year colleges were identified for further in-depth study. Work-based learning programs in these eight colleges were selected because they were thought to exemplify formal structure and commitment to work-based learning by various stakeholder groups, have a proven track record of student success, and represent innovative practices. During the fall of 1994, research teams have visited these colleges and, using a structured interview (qualitative) procedure, gathered relevant data regarding program quality. Currently the teams are synthesizing this information and producing a second report documenting the activities required to initiate and operate two-year college work-based learning programs. This report will be available in the spring of 1995.
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