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Features of Occupational Programs at the Secondary and Postsecondary Education Levels
NCES: 2001018
June 2001

Executive Summary

This report presents data collected from two surveys conducted in spring 1999: "Survey onVocational Programs in Secondary Schools" and "Survey on Occupational Programs in PostsecondaryEducation Institutions." The surveys were conducted to provide the U.S. Department of Education'sOffice of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) with national estimates on occupational programactivities.

The secondary school survey was conducted through the National Center for EducationStatistics (NCES) Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), and the postsecondary survey was conductedthrough the NCES Postsecondary Education Quick Information System (PEQIS). The FRSS survey wasadministered to public secondary schools that include grades 11 and 12; respondents were asked aboutprogram activities for 28 selected occupations within 6 broad occupational areas. The PEQIS survey wasadministered to less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions, and respondents were asked to report onprogram activities for 32 selected occupations in the same 6 occupational areas. Survey findings arepresented by school type (comprehensive, vocational) for the FRSS survey, and by level of institution (2-year, less-than-2-year) for the PEQIS survey. Most findings are based on schools and institutions thatoffered at least one of the listed occupational programs.

Program Offerings

Overall, a majority of all public secondary schools offered at least one of the listedoccupational programs: 35 percent of the schools offered 1 to 5 programs, 18 percent offered 6 to 10programs, and another 13 percent offered more than 10 programs. However, about one-third of theschools did not offer any of these programs. As one might expect, vocational schools were more likelythan comprehensive high schools to offer the listed occupational programs; 98 percent of vocationalschools offered at least one listed program, compared to 63 percent of comprehensive schools. Onaverage, vocational schools also offered more occupational programs than did comprehensive schools; forexample, 44 percent of vocational schools compared with 9 percent of comprehensive schools offeredmore than 10 of the listed occupational programs.

Ninety percent of less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions offered at least one of the listedoccupational programs. About half of the institutions offered 1 to 5 programs, another 11 percent offered6 to 10 programs, and an additional 27 percent offered more than 10 programs. A similar percentage of2-year and less-than-2-year institutions offered at least one listed occupational program; 91 percent ofless-than-2-year institutions offered at least one of the listed programs, compared to 88 percent of 2-yearinstitutions. However, 2-year institutions offered more of the listed occupational programs; for example,43 percent of 2-year institutions compared with 5 percent of less-than-2-year institutions offered morethan 10 programs. With one exception (cosmetology), each specific occupational program was morecommon among 2-year institutions than among less-than-2-year institutions.

Among the public secondary schools and less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions thatoffered at least one listed occupational program, some broad program areas and some specific programswere more popular than others. A majority of these public secondary schools offered at least one programin two of the six broad program areas-business and marketing (85 percent) and technical occupations(60 percent). About half of these schools offered at least one program in each of the other broad programareas-mechanical occupations, the building trades, health/life sciences, and service occupations. Amongless-than-4-year postsecondary institutions offering any listed program, a majority offered at least oneprogram in three of the six broad program areas-service occupations (64 percent), health/life sciences(61 percent), and business and marketing (60 percent). About half of these institutions offered programsfor technical occupations, and fewer than half offered at least one program in mechanical occupations andthe building trades.

Ensuring the Teaching of Relevant Job Skills

Educators responsible for occupationally specific courses typically attempt to ensure that thecontent of their courses relates well to the occupations for which they prepare students. Variousprocedures exist to ensure a match between course content and occupational skill requirements, five ofwhich were included in the surveys. For public secondary schools, the five procedures listed wereindustry advisory committees, surveys of employers" skill needs, followup surveys of graduates, studentwork experience (e.g., internships), and faculty externships (occupational work experience). Except forfaculty externships, each of these procedures was used by at least two-thirds of all public secondaryschools that offered at least one of the listed occupational programs. About half of these schools usedfaculty externships to ensure that courses teach appropriate job skills. For less-than-4-year postsecondaryinstitutions, the five listed procedures were industry advisory committees, surveys of employers" skillneeds, followup surveys of graduates, mechanisms for faculty to get recent work experience, and periodicinternal reviews. Except for mechanisms for faculty to get recent work experience, each of theseprocedures was used in at least one listed occupational program by about four-fifths of less-than-4-yearpostsecondary institutions that offered at least one of the listed occupational programs. About half ofthese institutions used mechanisms for faculty to get recent work experience.

Skill Competency Lists

To examine the use of skill competencies in occupational programs, respondents in bothsurveys were asked whether skill competency lists had been developed or adopted for each listedoccupational program. Most public secondary schools with one or more of the listed occupationalprograms had developed or adopted skill competency lists for their programs; 78 percent of these schoolshad developed or adopted skill competencies for all of their offered programs and 95 percent haddeveloped or adopted skill competencies for at least one program. As with secondary schools, a largeproportion of 2-year and less-than-2-year postsecondary institutions that offered one or more of the listedoccupational programs reported that skill competency lists had been developed or adopted for theirprograms; 77 percent of these institutions had developed or adopted skill competencies for all of theirprograms, and 93 percent had developed or adopted skill competencies for at least one program.Secondary schools and postsecondary institutions also were asked to indicate the extent ofeducator and industry input in skill competency development-that is, whether the skill competency listswere developed or adopted exclusively by individual course instructors or group(s) of educators,primarily by educators with industry input, with about equal educator and industry input, or primarily orexclusively by industry. Skill competency lists for at least one program were developed or adoptedexclusively by educators, without industry involvement, in about one-third of all public secondary schoolsthat offered at least one listed occupational program. About half of these schools reported a minor levelof industry involvement in the development or adoption of skill competency lists for at least one listedprogram, fewer (34 percent) reported equal industry and educator involvement, and fewer still (6 percent)reported primary or exclusive industry involvement. Industry seemed to have a comparable level ofinvolvement in developing or adopting skill competency lists at the postsecondary level. Almost half ofless-than-4-year institutions with one or more of the listed occupational programs reported a minor levelof industry input for at least one program, 36 percent involved educators and industry equally, and 8percent used primarily or exclusively industry input.

Defining Vocational Program Completers

The FRSS survey asked secondary schools what criteria, if any, they used to determinewhether a student is a "vocational program completer." The criteria listed were an end of program exam(not a course or graduation exam), passage of specific vocational courses, a minimum grade point averagein the program, and passage of specific academic courses other than graduation requirements. Themajority of public secondary schools with listed occupational programs used some criteria to determinewhether a student was a program completer in at least one of their occupational programs (89 percent) and in all of their programs (77 percent). The most commonly used vocational completer criterion wasthe passage of specific vocational courses; 75 percent of public secondary schools with listedoccupational programs used this criterion in at least one program, while only 17 to 30 percent used eachof the remaining criteria in at least one program.

Credentialing Processes

Occupational programs are sometimes linked to a credentialing process, through whichstudents are awarded official documentation that they have completed a program and/or passed a skillstest. At the secondary level, potential credentials (other than the high school diploma) are state or industryregulatory exams (resulting in registrations, licenses, or certifications) and occupational skill certificates.The FRSS survey asked whether each occupational program prepared students to earn either of thesecredentials. Seven percent of public secondary schools with listed occupational programs preparedstudents in all of their programs for a state or industry regulatory exam (leading to registration, licensing,or certification), while 41 percent prepared students in at least one of their programs to do so. Thirty-onepercent of public secondary schools with listed occupational programs prepared students in all of theirprograms to earn an occupational skill certificate, whereas 55 percent prepared students in at least one oftheir programs to do so.

The PEQIS survey asked less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions whether theiroccupational programs prepared students to earn various types of educational or occupational credentials.First, the survey asked about two standard academic credentials-associate's degrees and institutionalcertificates/diplomas. The survey also asked about regulatory credentials-state registrations, licenses, orcertificatesand two types of credentials offered by industry, associations, or unions-industry/tradecertificates or diplomas, and company certificates (e.g., Cisco Certified Internet work Expert). About halfof less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions that offered at least one listed occupational program offeredinstitutional certificates/diplomas in all of their programs, and 87 percent offered this type of credentialfor at least one of their programs. Next most common were associate's degrees and state-awardedregulatory credentials (registrations, licenses, or certificates), each offered by about half of theseinstitutions for at least one of their programs. Industry/trade certificates or diplomas were available for atleast one program at about one-third of these institutions, and company certificates were offered at aboutone-fifth of these institutions.

Relationships Among Program Characteristics

Most program characteristics cited in the FRSS survey, such as offering skill certificates ordefining vocational program completion, represent program quality-control structures. These quality controlstructures are often related to each other. That is, programs that used one quality-control structureoften use another as well. Looking specifically at programs that offered skill certificates, these programswere found to be more likely than those that did not offer skill certificates to use skill competency lists, tohave industry input in the development or adoption of their skill competency lists, and to define programcompleters. In contrast, programs that identified program completers were no more likely than programsthat did not identify program completers to use skill competency lists, but they were more likely toinvolve industry in the development or adoption of competency lists and to offer skill certificates.

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