HEI FYI

Do you care about college access? Then it’s time to get to know more about ATCs (Area Technical Centers)…


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Most of us working in higher ed don’t really understand CTE (that’s Career Technical Education)—and at one time this included me. Through the years, however, I’ve come to learn that it’s the heart and soul of the pathway to opportunity for those who most need postsecondary education for a better future.

We can all agree on the need for credentials that have value—and that lead to meaningful employment and wages for graduates. We all know that college attainment leads to better outcomes in many ways across a person’s life. I know, I’m preaching to the choir here. Yet, despite knowing this and how many millions of working-age adults lack a sufficient credential, we see a persistent chasm between much of higher education and the workforce development system that is a common stop on the road for many learners.

So, what is an ATC and why does it matter?

ATCs, according to the organization, Advance CTE, are “CTE-focused institutions that serve learners from across multiple geographies, such as school districts, education services areas, and workforce development areas or regions…they offer secondary and sub-baccalaureate-level education and training…or both.” A recent report from Advance CTE found that:

  • There are 1,300 ATCs in the US, across 39 states and territories.
  • ATCs vary tremendously in their history, governance, and funding structures (which is why they are tricky to understand).
  • ATCs make a significant contribution to state attainment goals through largely less-than-associate-degree-level credentials, although most ATCs are primarily secondary-school serving.
  • Many ATCs that have articulation agreements in place have them locally (not through statewide agreements), and they work closely with two-year colleges or local technical colleges.
  • ATCS’ structures are determined locally, and the federal government no longer acknowledges ATCs or requires reporting from them in the most recent CTE legislation.
  • ATCs vary widely in how they are governed and funded, but most are through the secondary schools or local education area that sends learners to the ATC (see figure below). The most significant fiscal resources come from districts, schools, and Perkins funds.

Unlike their four-year-college cousin, ATCs and CTE programs have the ability to change quickly in response to industry needs and demands. However, much like with their four-year-college cousin, the sector lacks a real awareness of the impact of ATCs and CTE programs on their clear intended outcomes. (Stay tuned for a discussion on outcomes evaluation in higher ed in our next newsletter).

Nonetheless, ATCs are a very important piece of the college opportunity puzzle. Some learners, whether they are in secondary school or recent high school graduates, will never attend a four-year college without some exposure. ATCs and CTE programs create a small path towards a bigger future—but only if state and local policy leaders understand how it can work.

In 2020, the HEI team was involved in two Comprehensive Local Needs Assessments (CLNAs) with community college partners in Maryland. These CLNAs are a requirement of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), which is the federal policy related to CTE today (that began in the 1950s and 60s with the National Defense Act and the Vocational Act of 1963). This experience radically changed our views about the significance of CTE in the college attainment story. Clear best practices are emerging that are critical for the expansion of college opportunity and are highlighted in Advance CTE’s report:

  • Integrate ATCs and CTE programs, generally, into any state education and workforce planning and policies.
  • Support the articulation agreements between ATCs and postsecondary institutions, so that short-term, industry-recognized credentials count toward associate and baccalaureate degrees.
  • Develop meaningful data dashboards on postsecondary and CTE outcomes.
  • Support ATCs in achieving full accreditation so they qualify for federal and state postsecondary funding.
  • Ensure that CTE outcome measures consider diversity and equity goals to identify major barriers to opportunity for marginalized populations in different fields.

Are you interested in talking through the impact and opportunity of ATCs vis-à-vis your organization? We’re ready thought partners and guides. Feel free to book a consult here, or contact us here.