Evaluation Plan
National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE)

Postsecondary Occupational Education

Vocational education is both a high school and postsecondary program, although Perkins III, as written, seems primarily focused on high schools. Research has shown that there are significant differences between students in high school and in college with respect to the reasons they enroll in vocational courses as well as in overall enrollment trends. Moreover, the primary institutions that deliver vocational training—high schools and community colleges—are fundamentally different. Nonetheless, Perkins III makes few distinctions between high schools and colleges with respect to federal objectives, program strategies, or accountability requirements.

Two issues are quite distinctive about postsecondary occupational education and will receive substantial attention under the NAVE. Growing evidence on participation and outcomes suggests that vocational education at this level is beneficial. Postsecondary vocational education also has direct implications for workforce development.

A. Participation and Outcomes

In contrast to vocational education at the secondary level, occupational program enrollments at the postsecondary level continue to grow at a rate in keeping with the sub-baccalaureate level more generally. In addition, available evidence clearly establishes a shift toward enrollment of older students. Such a shift in the demographics potentially signals a diversity of roles if not a changing role for occupational education at the postsecondary level—which may have implications for federal policy.

Figure 8

Postsecondary Participation and Outcomes

Research Issues

  • Enrollment Trends—Traditional and Nontraditional Students
  • Reasons for Participation
  • Importance of Degree Completion
  • Labor Market Returns—Completers and Noncompleters

Study Plans

  • Descriptive Statistics from NPSAS, NHES, NELS
  • Analyses using HS&B, NELS, SIPP, and BPS

The economic benefits of postsecondary occupational education are a key measure of the importance and impact of occupational programs. Most analyses in the literature find a significant return to an associate's degree. However, there are two caveats: first, there is evidence to suggest that the benefits are uneven;[9] and second, very few students complete an associate's degree.[10] NAVE will examine both the participation and benefits of postsecondary occupational education. In addition to the benefits for those who complete a degree, NAVE will examine the benefits of occupational education by field, for those who do not earn degrees, and for particular sub-groups of students.

Who participates in postsecondary occupational education and why?

Knowing the characteristics of those who enroll, and how enrollments are changing provides an important context for studying postsecondary occupational education. Of growing importance is an older student population that pursues more nontraditional pathways. The key questions to be addressed are:

  • Who enrolls in postsecondary occupational education and how has this pattern changed? How do the characteristics of those who pursue occupational education compare with those in nonoccupational programs at the sub-baccalaureate level?

  • In what types of institutions do postsecondary occupational students enroll?

  • What are the occupational enrollments by program area? Have enrollments by program area changed over time? Are patterns of participation in nontraditional programs changing? How important is "not-for-credit" course taking?

  • Has there been a shift in the timing of when postsecondary occupational students enroll?

  • What are the educational goals of postsecondary occupational students? Does "reason for enrollment" vary by student characteristics?


Descriptive Statistics from National Data: Enrollment patterns and trends by student characteristics will be presented using NPSAS (for credit course taking), NHES (inclusive of not-for-credit course taking), and Vocational Education in the United States: Toward the Year 2000. It may be possible to also use a survey of community college students planned by AACC-ACT to present evidence on student characteristics and stated goals for a broader student group (inclusive of those who take not-for-credit courses). Emphasis on special populations participation will be highlighted

What is the contribution of occupational education at the postsecondary level?

The increasing prevalence of degree noncompletion suggests the need to both understand the trends in and to more fully document the contribution of postsecondary occupational education to wages and earnings beyond simply looking at those who attain a degree.

  • How important is degree completion compared with skill acquisition (i.e., are alternative measures, such as industry-generated credentials, more beneficial in the labor market than traditional measures?) Are degrees less beneficial and thus less important in some fields?

  • What is the contribution of postsecondary occupational education to wages and earnings?

  • Does the impact vary by student characteristics, course taking, or field of study?


Analyses of National (and State) Databases: Several data sets will be used to measure the benefits of postsecondary occupational education.

  • Rate of Return Studies: Short and longer-term rates of returns will be calculated for both degree completers and noncompleters using national data sets such as HS&B, NELS, and BPS. The "value added" contribution of occupational programs will be calculated using HS&B. SIPP (and possibly state data) will be used to calculate rates of return by field of study.
  • Studies of Other Benefits: NAVE will potentially make use of state-level data for in-formation on technical competencies of, employability skills of, and employer satisfaction with postsecondary occupational students.

B. Postsecondary Occupational Education and Its Alignment with WIA

A major issue at the postsecondary level is coordinating occupational programs with the workforce development system. When Congress enacted Perkins III and the WIA, it believed that a plethora of job training programs created excessive administrative burden upon states and discouraged access to services. Therefore, Congress is likely to be particularly interested in the relationship between Perkins and the WIA.

Workforce development is likely to be affected not only by the institutional alignment of Perkins and WIA, but also by the extent to which students complete their training. Although there are still many occupations that require only minimal training and lower-level education, occupations requiring at least an associate's degree are projected to grow faster and with larger projected numerical increases than those requiring less education or training.[11] Despite (or perhaps as a consequence of) increased enrollments in postsecondary education, degree completion rates are low and are decreasing at the sub-baccalaureate level.[12] Of particular concern is the disproportionately high and growing rate of postsecondary dropping out among "disadvantaged students" (such as students of lower socioeconomic status, minority students, and those with lower high school grades). Given the diversity of the students who attend postsecondary institutions, the explanation for the comparatively low completion rates is unclear and more than likely many-layered. The NAVE intends to shed light on this issue by better understanding educational pathways and their implications for workforce development.

Figure 9

Postsecondary Occupational Education
Quality and Alignment with WIA

Research Issues

  • Program Quality
  • Impact of Workforce Systems on Postsecondary Occupational Education
  • Educational Pathways

Study Plans

  • Descriptive Statistics from NSOPF
  • Analyses using IPEDS and BLS Labor Market Data
  • Case Studies—Postsecondary Occupational Education and Workforce Development Interaction
  • Analyses using HS&B, NELS, and BPS

What role does postsecondary occupational education play in development of state and local workforce development strategies?

The 1998 WIA presents opportunities to integrate occupational education with workforce investment systems (through the optional use of state-unified plans of WIA and Perkins and the provision of workforce development services, through one-stop career centers, at postsecondary providers). Several basic questions need to be addressed:

  • What is the relationship between local workforce boards and postsecondary occupational programs? To what extent do local workforce boards impact postsecondary occupational programs?

  • What is the interaction/relationship between postsecondary institutions and one-stops? Are one-stops used to integrate postsecondary occupational education and other workforce training programs?


Case Studies of Postsecondary Institutions: In-depth case studies will be undertaken to examine the role played by postsecondary institutions in development of a coherent state or local approach to workforce development. A major objective will be to examine the early response of community colleges (primarily) to the WIA. The study will focus on the implications that efforts to integrate workforce development strategies have on occupational programs and institutional relations with area business.

What is the quality of postsecondary occupational programs (as measured by available indicators)?

Several dimensions of program quality are the: (1) nature of programs offered (as measured by faculty quality and responsiveness to labor market demand); (2) "the program of study" students actually pursue;[13] and (3) results (as measured by employer satisfaction). Relevant research questions include

  • What are the qualifications of occupational faculty (compared to past/academic 2-yr. faculty)? To what extent are postsecondary occupational faculty involved in professional development activities and of what type?

  • Are the occupational programs offered related to local labor market needs, and do they change adequately in response to local labor market needs (e.g., do enrollment trends coincide with anticipated labor market demand)?

  • What is the projected level of education needed for mid-level occupations, and do students attain the level of education consistent with projected labor market requirements? Do educational requirements vary by occupational field or by geographical region?

  • Are employers satisfied with postsecondary occupational education? To what extent are they involved in postsecondary occupational programs (e.g., prevalence of co-ops, involvement on advisory boards, use of postsecondary institutions in hiring practices etc.)? Are students satisfied with postsecondary occupational education?

  • Now that states are no longer required to set aside funds for a sex equity coordinator or special populations, how are these issues addressed?

  • What is the typical postsecondary occupational education pathway? How efficiently do occupational students progress toward goal completion (i.e., are course-taking patterns coherent and/or of a meaningful quantity or are students simply "milling around")? What are the persistence patterns of occupational students?

  • As measured by degree/certificate attainment or critical number of courses, are completion rates of occupational students commensurate with those of non-occupational students at the sub-baccalaureate level? Do completion rates vary by student characteristics (old versus young; by goal)?

  • What are the factors that contribute to longer persistence and higher completion rates? How is persistence and completion affected by differences in student goals and pathways?


Analyses of National (and State) Databases. A number of analyses using existing data sets will explore the quality of postsecondary occupational education.

  • Faculty Characteristics: Using the National Survey of Postsecondary Faculty, descriptive statistics of faculty qualifications and professional development activities for occupational faculty will be documented (in comparison to other 2-year faculty).

  • Labor Market Trends: The NAVE will make use of IPEDS and BLS employment data to track the correspondence between fields of enrollment and degree completion and labor market trends.

  • Satisfaction Measures: NELS, BPS, National Employer Survey, and (possibly) state data all solicit information about either student or employer satisfaction with occupational training.

  • Studies of Educational Pathways: Analyses (using BPS, NELS, HS&B, and B&B) will investigate such issues as persistence, student pathways through post-secondary occupational education including efficiency of course taking, and completion.

  • Case Studies: Interviews with state and college officials will examine Perkins III changes, such as elimination of set-asides and the requirement for a sex equity coordinator.

9 Not all fields of study lead to significant positive rates of return. See W. Norton Grubb, Learning and Earning in the Middle: The Economic Benefits of Sub-baccalaureate Education (New York: Teachers College).

10 Based on the HS&B sophomore cohort, of all students who enroll in a 4-year college complete at least a bachelor's degree. Thomas J. Kane and Cecilia Elena Rouse, "The Community College: Educating Students at the Margin Between College and Work," Journal of Economic Perspectives (Winter 1999): 63-64.

11 George T. Silvestri, "Occupational Employment Projections to 2006," Monthly Labor Review (November 1997): 58-83.

12 D. Boesel and E. Fredland, Is There Too Much Emphasis on Getting a College Degree? (Washington, D.C.: National Library of Education, June 1998).

13 That is, what courses are students taking or combining, and what is their progress?

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Last Modified: 09/16/2003