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A Strong Safety Net Allows Equity in CTE to Take Root

February 23, 2022

The Wizard's Warehouse is the Truckee Meadows Community College’s food pantry, which is located on a campus largely attended by CTE students.


By Rosario Torres, Program Officer, Career Readiness

The seeds of the future of work and learning had already been planted by the time the pandemic swept through the workforce. Employers needed more workers with new skills to meet the demands of an evolving global economy, while workers needed better access to the education and training that could prepare them to fill those roles. Rather than stunt the growth of these trends, the pandemic accelerated them.

Equity-focused career and technical education (CTE) is essential for both students, who are eager to upskill or reskill to pursue fulfilling careers, and employers, who need an infusion of talent to stay competitive. As innovative solutions sprout up around the country, we must ensure that our higher education system and human service agencies cross-pollinate to achieve better outcomes for adults with low incomes.

Long-festering racial and gender inequities have made it difficult for many workers to seize the opportunities of a recovering employment landscape, limiting the talent pool of skilled workers. With disproportionately higher rates of hunger, housing insecurity, mental health concerns, and care responsibilities, students of color, student parents (particularly single mother students), and students with low incomes face barriers to completing the education and training that they want and need. A recent survey from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that the basic needs insecurity gap between Black and White students was 19 percentage points. Although the pandemic forced many students to enroll in public safety net programs -- 15% of college students applied for SNAP during the pandemic -- many more students were unaware that they were eligible and slipped through the cracks. In addition to the layers of inequality exacerbated by COVID-19, the pandemic also displayed the inefficiency of navigating public service programs, undercutting the goal of helping low-income adults achieve temporary relief and security as they work to build a better future for themselves and their families.

Philanthropy can provide fertile ground for testing solutions and scaling them to address these systemic, or even ecosystemic, issues. Here are three recent ECMC Foundation investments that have seeded or expanded promising approaches to improving student outcomes in postsecondary CTE by better aligning postsecondary institutions with safety net programs.

Seattle Jobs Initiative: Supporting Change at the Institutional Level

To support change at the institutional level and make the most immediate impact on CTE students, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI) developed a Student-Centered Design consulting program to assist postsecondary education affiliated clients in pinpointing and applying interventions in areas where outdated assumptions and structural bottlenecks are negatively affecting student access and outcomes. Building on its successful consulting model established in 2014 to provide technical assistance to SNAP Education & Training (SNAP E&T) programs, SJI’s Benefits for Success CTE Academy blends human-centered design and process improvement to identify, design, implement and test new solutions that improve the student experience in accessing these critical safety net programs with the goal of boosting postsecondary persistence and completion. SJI is currently helping four community colleges delve into understanding the root challenges that prevent students from maximizing the full use of services or programs. For example, SJI is working with Truckee Meadow Community College in Nevada to better understand its students’ awareness of SNAP E&T funding and reduce the stigma of accessing services and resources. The college is revamping their food pantry to reach more eligible students and educating CTE faculty to be more aware of these resources for students. Other colleges in SJI’s cohort include Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, Mt. San Antonio College in California, and Pine Technical and Community College in Minnesota.

National Association of Counties Research Foundation: Exploring How Local Government Services Can Support Higher Education Success

At the local government level, where many policies affecting local higher education institutions are shaped, the National Association of Counties Research Foundation (NACoRF) has explored how county leadership interacts with local postsecondary institutions. Its analysis found that, while counties do not have direct oversight of postsecondary institutions, they do fund operations and facilities (especially community colleges), provide support and coordination across sectors and services, and have significant authority over local human services programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP and child care subsidies. Improved access to critical safety net programs can address poverty and increase participation in education and training programs. In Allegheny County, PA, for example, the county’s human services department provides navigators to help the Community College of Allegheny County connect its students to county resources, such as housing, behavioral health services, and economic support programs. NACoRF’s research underscores how counties can play a significant role in developing partnerships across sectors that can further align workforce, higher education, and human service systems.

National Skills Coalition: Boosting Coordination at the State Level

At the state level, where social service agencies and higher education intersect, National Skills Coalition (NSC) is providing technical assistance to three statewide career pathway partnerships between community and technical colleges and agencies that administer public benefits programs. The goal is to help each state create a statewide career pathways strategy so that more people with low incomes, who may be receiving public benefits, can access and complete postsecondary credentials that can lead to higher-paying employment. To this end, NSC developed a Career Pathways State Toolkit, which highlights best practice examples of career pathways partnerships. As an example, Oregon’s Community College SNAP Training and Employment Program (STEP) Consortia developed a career pathways partnership between the state’s Department of Human Services and its seventeen community colleges, which helped recipients of SNAP access postsecondary education through SNAP E&T funding. As part of a broader Pathways to Opportunity Coalition, the Consortia and its partners helped secure $5 million in state funding through the Benefits Navigator Bill to establish a Benefits Navigator position at every community college and public university to help students access SNAP food benefits, STEP, housing assistance, and other basic needs resources.

Whether you are an institution seeking more ways to support your CTE students, or a system of institutions and agencies looking for collaborative approaches for serving the same populations, efforts to bridge gaps between our workforce, higher education, and safety net systems allows equity to take root -- and for a better future to fully bloom. 

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