Area technical centers: Key assets to an equitable economic and postsecondary enrollment recovery

In a world of work where postsecondary attainment is more important than ever, half a million fewer undergraduate students enrolled in college last fall. Public two-year college enrollment declined 21 percent. How do we reverse this troubling trend? A national analysis of area technical centers offers some promising insights.

Building Better Futures for Learners: A 50-State Analysis of Area Technical Centers uncovers trends and challenges facing 1,481 area technical centers (ATCs) to raise awareness and understanding of these under-utilized institutions, along with best practices and policy recommendations to help states fully leverage ATCs to meet state degree and credential attainment goals that are critical to an equitable post-coronavirus national recovery.

ATCs are defined as Career Technical Education (CTE)-focused institutions that serve learners from across multiple geographies, such as school districts, educational service areas, and workforce development areas or regions. These institutions offer secondary and sub-baccalaureate-level education and training and can serve secondary learners, postsecondary learners or both.

ATCs are difficult to define due to their wide diversity in structure, funding, learner audiences, program offerings and connection to the larger postsecondary system. However, their institutional diversity is also what makes them distinct and valuable public assets.

The findings from this report offer valuable insights on the potential role ATCs can serve not only as a piece of the economic recovery puzzle, but also as an accessible on-ramp for hundreds of thousands of postsecondary learners whose learning journey has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Finding #1: Area technical centers have a central and significant role in the CTE delivery system.

The history of ATCs can be traced back to the 1960s when vocational educational schools were established under the Vocational Education Act of 1963. These institutions were formed in response to the increasing complexity of work that required new workforce training programs, as well as economies of scale to provide the necessary equipment, instructors and facilities for these programs. ATCs were an important stepping stone in gaining national recognition of the importance of Career Technical Education (CTE) and making it an option for more learners.

Today, there are more ATCs in the United States than there are community colleges, with 1,481 central and campus affiliated institutions in 39 states. ATCs are located across a variety of geographies and are predominantly open admission for postsecondary learners, providing an equitable foundation for program access.

As institutions that serve both secondary and postsecondary learners, ATCs are often incorporated into K-12 governing and oversight systems, and therefore are positioned at a critical crossroads of K-12, postsecondary education and adult/workforce development systems that must be fully leveraged.

Finding #2: Area technical centers are multifaceted public institutions that have complex governance and funding across states.

ATC governance and related funding structures vary considerably by state and even within individual states or territories. Some states position ATCs as part of the K-12 education system, while others are identified as postsecondary institutions or even established as independent education systems. While this variation also extends to funding sources, most ATCs receive financial support primarily from local, rather than state or federal funding sources.

While this diversity in structure has allowed ATCs to be nimble and responsive to changing local workforce and learner needs, it has also led them to be underutilized as valuable assets for meeting state attainment and workforce development goals.

Finding #3: Area technical centers in 27 states serve postsecondary learners, actively contributing to statewide attainment goals.

Twenty-seven states and territories reported their ATCs serve postsecondary learners to some degree, contributing to their postsecondary attainment goal primarily through shorter-term and non-degree credentials that fall below the associate degree level.

A few states primarily focus on postsecondary learners — Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Guam reported mostly serving postsecondary learners while still providing some access to secondary students. Florida’s technical college system exclusively serves postsecondary and adult learners, making them the only state to do so. Alaska and Oklahoma reported their offerings equally focus on secondary and postsecondary learners.

Encouragingly, the chart below affirms that the vast majority of reporting states consider ATCs to be active contributors to their postsecondary degree and credential attainment goals. The research also shows that there is significant growth potential for postsecondary learner offerings at ATCs, as 63 percent of reporting states designate their ATCs as primarily part of their secondary school system. Additionally, only seven of the 27 states provide postsecondary programs equally or primarily focus on postsecondary learners . States also reported substantially more program offerings for secondary compared to postsecondary learners.

Source: Building Better Futures for Learners: A 50-State Analysis of Area Technical Centers

Finding #4: Area technical centers are responsive to the needs of their labor labor market.

State responses show that CTE program offerings at ATCs cover the breadth of the U.S. economy and represent every Career Cluster ®. The most common Career Clusters in which CTE programs are offered via ATCs for postsecondary learners are Architecture and Construction (in 78 percent of states and territories or 21 total); Health Science (78 percent or 21 total); Manufacturing (78 percent or 21 total); and Transportation, Distribution and Logistics (74 percent or 20 total). These career clusters cover in-demand occupations for most regions nationwide, allowing ATCs to meet the needs of their communities and labor market.

Half of states reported providing apprenticeship or journeyman certificates for postsecondary learners, indicating that ATCs are well positioned to provide a talent pipeline for local workforce needs. Future coverage will highlight examples of statewide apprenticeship and employee training programs that utilize ATCs.

Finding #5: Area technical centers are under-studied and under-utilized public assets that should be better leveraged to equitably support learners on their pathway to a good job.

Area technical centers have all the components to be substantial contributors to postsecondary attainment and workforce development. However, a lack of understanding about these diverse public assets and their changing role from federally championed to primarily locally controlled institutions have led them to be overlooked in policy conversations on closing skill and equity gaps. This oversight is particularly concerning as states navigate a long economic recovery with limited resources and reduced postsecondary enrollment.

The report provides several policy recommendations to elevate awareness of ATCs, provide a definitive role in postsecondary attainment plans, and better align ATCs to the larger postsecondary system. The research revealed a significant lack of statewide accreditation processes, articulation agreements and clear credit transfer policies for ATCs, creating troublesome barriers to equitable access and outcomes for postsecondary learners utilizing these institutions. The report recommends increased state oversight in the administration of ATCs to close these alignment gaps, improved data collection on ATC offerings and outcomes, and ensure program quality and alignment with state workforce needs.

Future Impact and Questions for States

In a time of high fiscal and institutional uncertainty, ATCs are an opportunity for state policymakers and industry to utilize existing resources to build more resilient post secondary recruitment pipelines, create stronger in-demand career pathways at the regional and state level, and enhance equity in access and alignment to support learners and ultimately contribute to stronger economic growth.

A microsite features five state policy profiles that highlight best practices across these opportunity areas in addition to the full report and a nationwide map and listing of ATCs

Policymakers should act now to include ATCs in their learning and economic recovery strategy. Here are key questions that all stakeholders should consider to put this report’s findings into action:

  • Expanding Capacity: If your state’s ATCs do not currently serve postsecondary and adult learners, do they have the capacity to do so? Does your state face distinct gaps in postsecondary CTE offerings and alignment that could be filled by ATCs?
  • Pathway Alignment: If your state’s ATCs do serve postsecondary and adult learners, are their programs well-aligned with secondary offerings and the larger postsecondary system?
  • Data: If your state has ATCs, are they part of your state data collection system? Can you tell who is served, broken down by demographics, and what credentials learners earn and the value of those credentials in the labor market?
  • Postsecondary Alignment: Does your state’s ATCs have adequate transfer policies? If your ATCs have articulation agreements, can they be expanded to include regional or statewide agreements?
  • Equity and Access: Do your state’s ATCs have equity barriers to program admission, completion, and placement that can be reduced or eliminated?
  • Awareness: How can you build awareness and visibility among policymakers and CTE stakeholders about ATCs in your state?
  • Workforce Development: Are your state’s ATCs specifically mentioned in the state postsecondary attainment strategy and workforce development plan? How can ATCs in your state be elevated to fill regional and state workforce gaps?

Stacy Whitehouse, Senior Associate Communications and State Engagement

Advance CTE is the longest-standing national non-profit that represents State CTE Directors and state leaders of Career Technical Education. Additional information and resources for this research can be found at areatechnicalcenters.org

Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work supports CTE for all students and Learning that Works for America