Career Tech Corner: Ensuring Access through Admissions
It’s admissions time! For CTCs, admissions staff are busy processing applications and making plans for the incoming class for 2023-2024. This is also a great time of year to remind staff about a CTC’s obligation to ensure that programs are accessible to all students, including students with disabilities and students from special populations who may be underrepresented in career tech programs. Federal Grant Programs such as Perkins V, as well as civil rights laws, require careful review of data to determine whether all populations are fairly served.
The admissions process is a critical step in providing equal access, so much so that the federal government has created “special” rules for vocational school program providers. This makes some sense, because a traditional K-12 school district does not have an admissions process since they are generally required to enroll all eligible students who reside in their districts.
These special vocational rules, codified in 34 C.F.R. Appendix B to Part 100, establish specific guidelines for vocational school admissions. The rules expressly prohibit a vocational school or program from using any type of criteria that disproportionately excludes individuals of a particular race, color, national origin, sex or disability (collectively, these are referred to as “protected classes”). Vocational program operators have the burden of demonstrating that any criteria which is used as a gate in admissions have a valid purpose.
Theoretically, it is not the end of the road even if the school’s criteria for admission to programs has a disproportionate impact on a protected class. According to the regulation, a school still may be able to use the criteria if it can prove that it is essential, and there is no alternative, equally-valid criteria that may be used. In practice, however, it is very difficult to meet this burden and justify criteria that has such a disproportionate impact on a protected class.
Because of this, most CTCs in Ohio have transitioned to using a lottery system, with the only “criteria” being a limit on the number of credits in which a student may be deficient for graduation, since the lab takes up so much of the student’s schedule and it becomes difficult to make up credits after enrollment to remain on track to graduate.
The justification for lottery systems is apparent when you consider how common criteria might pose inequitable enrollment barriers. For example, many CTCs used student interviews as part of their admissions process, especially for competitive programs where there were frequently more applicants than seats in the program. As state and federal officials analyzed the legality of this criteria, they began to conclude that in-person interviews pose a risk for human bias to enter the picture.
For example, if a student in a wheelchair applies for a program such as auto mechanics, which involves a lot of physical activities and that student attends an interview, admissions staff who meet the student may assume that the student has physical limitations which prevent them from fully participating. As a result, they may be less inclined to approve the student’s application, even though the student may very well be successful in the program with appropriate accommodations and modifications.
Similarly, other criteria such as GPA, discipline, and attendance may have disproportionate and negative impacts on protected classes. Applying such criteria is often difficult to defend, because they do not always present a clear link between the curriculum and class requirements of the lab with a student’s ability to participate effectively in the vocational program.
When we talk about “success,” it is important to understand that a career technical program in Ohio must provide equal access to all students who reside in the CTC’s territory. This is a mandate under both state and federal law, including Appendix B as well Ohio Revised Code §3311.19. These laws do not strictly focus on outcomes, but rather are more about access.
In some circumstances, “success” for a particular student may be that they participate in a lab, but do not earn any industry certifications or credentials like their peers. This may be a difficult concept for staff to understand, especially since programs are rated and judged by such factors as the number of students who receive credentials and who successfully enter their chosen fields after graduation.
The Ohio Department of Education is tasked with assisting the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in ensuring that Ohio CTCs remain compliant with Appendix B and other civil rights laws and regulations. In the past few years, ODE has taken an active role in reviewing the admissions process of CTCs through things such as desk audits and complaint reviews. This has triggered statewide conversations about CTC admissions, and many changes have come about because of these conversations.
If you have questions about your admissions process or if you might be facing a program review in the near future, it is important to contact legal counsel who is conversant with the particular needs of career-technical education for further discussions and consultation.