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CTE: Basic Education Reporting Tips

Whether you’re new to the beat or experienced at covering career and technical education, Charlotte West provides tips to help you get started on your next story: Start with the data/research, look beyond college, realize that CTE isn’t always what you think it is, and examine these CTE trends.

Plus, don’t forget to check out the tips for reporting longform education stories!

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDU Images

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While most people in the United States think that higher education can help them improve their economic livelihoods, only around half believe that the benefits outweigh the increasing cost of college. As a result, a growing number of people – including teenagers and adults looking to change careers – are looking at shorter education options that lead to credentials other than the traditional four-year degree. These include short-term certificate programs, bootcamps and apprenticeships. 

Here are some reporting tips on how to get started on your next story on career and technical education. 

Start With the Data and Research

A good way to get started on the higher ed beat is to look at state and national data about who attends college and where they go, said Paul Fain, a freelance journalist who writes about the  connections between education and the U.S. workforce. (Disclosure: Charlotte West is a national reporter for Open Campus, which publishes Fain’s newsletter, The Job).

He says that most higher ed coverage focuses on selective, residential colleges. But only 13% of college students live on campus, and about 44% of undergraduates attend community colleges. Who is attending college is changing too; 40% of students are “nontraditional,” i.e. over the age of 24, and roughly a quarter are student parents. 

Some places to start looking for data are the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), which tracks postsecondary enrollment. Fain cautions, however, that there is a lack of numbers on CTE in particular because the federal government doesn’t collect data on noncredit career education programs. 

Daniel Willis, a data reporter at EdSource, adds that most national education data, including NCES, is linked to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). “It’s basically a bottomless well of stories, but also it’s a government site, so the UX is kinda a nightmare. Even veteran data journalists usually need a quick course or conference panel to navigate it,” he said. “If you’re new, most states have way more intuitive data portals and more accurate data.”

You should also follow the research coming out of places like the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, New America’s Center on Education and Labor and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Sign up for their newsletters and contact their public information officers to be added to their media lists. 

Another idea is to look at who is going back to school and what they are studying. Explore the training and retraining options for the 39 million people in the United States who have some college, but no credential. 

This report from NSCRC, for example, provides information on the types of undergraduate credentials that people are earning from public and private nonprofit institutions. The largest growth in 2020-2021 was among students earning stacked credentials (graduates with prior degrees or certificates). 

Look Beyond College

Higher education isn’t just about the four-year degree anymore. In response to a changing labor market, some colleges are also creating shorter certificate programs and apprenticeships that move people into the labor market more quickly. 

The pandemic has impacted how people think about higher education too, even among traditional-aged college students. The number of high schoolers planning to attend a four-year school decreased from 71% to 51% over the last two years, according to a recent survey by the ECMC Group. (Disclosure: ECMC funds the Institute for Citizens and Scholars’ Higher Ed Media Fellowship.)

Talk to people working with workforce development at your local community college or the continuing education divisions at four-year universities, Fain said. 

In addition to being offered at community colleges, CTE is taught in middle and high schools (often via dual enrollment) and for-profit schools. “I think covering career education requires reporting on both K-12 and lots of segments of higher ed, as well as employers and labor unions,” Fain said. “I’d also track down small colleges that focus on specific pieces of career ed – like automotive for-profits or IT bootcamps.” 

This Chalkbeat Chicago story by Mila Koumpilova, for example, looks at how school district officials are revamping CTE programs to set teens on a path to post-high school employment in lieu of four-year colleges. 

Good sources can include high school counselors and dual enrollment coordinators at community colleges. Checking in with sources on a regular basis – not just when you are working on something – can be helpful in developing a good working relationship, so they’ll start bringing story ideas to you. 

CTE can also be provided in non-traditional settings like prisons and jails. This story from the Hechinger Report is a good example of the types of training being offered to people in prison. (With Pell Grants being restored for people in prisons in 2023, this is an area to keep an eye on in the coming months). 

Other stories might focus on what’s happening with the for-profit college sector, which has recently come under increased scrutiny by the federal government. In August, the U.S. Education Department canceled its recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an accrediting agency that oversees mostly for-profit colleges. The decision affects 27 colleges and around 5,000 students. The Education Department has also been offering wide scale student loan forgiveness for those who attended for-profit schools that have been shut down, such as ITT Technical Institute. 

CTE Isn’t Always What You Think

No longer is CTE just about the trades like welding and construction  – apprenticeships and certificate programs are growing in fields like energy technology and cybersecurity. (The Biden administration recently announced the creation of the Apprenticeship Ambassador Initiative, which aims to create 460 new registered apprenticeship programs to train 10,000 people.)

“People have such outdated and just wrong impressions of what career education is,” Fain said. “It’s not for dirty jobs, as many people think – drill press operator comes to mind. Many of these roles are in high-demand, high-tech fields.”

Apprenticeships, which allow people to earn money while they learn, are also being launched in nontraditional fields beyond tech. Some states, such as California and Colorado, have started apprenticeships in fields like early childhood education. 

A growing number of employers in tech do not require college degrees, although that’s still for a small number of jobs, Fain said. In some cases, companies are starting to cover the costs of education in high-demand fields, such as IT support, health care and advanced manufacturing. 

“More employers are getting creative about paying for students to learn on the job,” Fain said. “Some are partnering with community colleges and upstart education providers to do customized shorter-term training programs.”

Fain said that education reporters should be asking questions, such as: “Will governments increasingly subsidize non-degree credentials? Will traditional colleges offer transfer credit for them? Will a meaningful number of students who earn them get well-paying jobs? Will they pursue a degree later, or will they get stuck in dead-end jobs?”

To see the average earnings and growth potential for specific industries and occupations, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. 

Fain outlined several trends that reporters interested in CTE should be looking at:

  • Short-term programs that are either free or heavily subsidized by governments and employers
  • Tech apprenticeships, which are beginning to open to some people without college degrees
  • Dual enrollment trends
  • The increasing dominance of big online universities, particularly Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University
  • State funding for CTE tracks
  • College ROI data, economic mobility, and policy debates

Tips for Reporting Longform Education Stories

  • Plan long-term for longform: Paul Fain suggests thinking about stories in three tiers: 1) quick hitters you could turn around in an afternoon; 2) shorter features that take two or three weeks by doing a few hours of reporting a week; and 3) that really ambitious project that you are always collecting data and information for in hopes you’ll eventually have time to write it.

If you have to balance longform pieces with day-to-day coverage, keep working on your passion project whenever you can carve out a few minutes. Use the shorter pieces you’re writing to start building background for the longer story you want to do. If you do a quick write-up of a research report that’s relevant to a larger topic you’re interested in, keep a list of the relevant facts and figures, so you have those at hand when you’re ready to start writing.

  • Browse Twitter and other social platforms: Social media can be a great way to find sources. For example, there’s recently been a lot of discussion about what student loan forgiveness means for people who have debt, but no degree. A search for “no degree” on Twitter brought up some interesting discussions of who wasn’t completing college and why.

    (This story came out last year after the author saw several tweets from undergraduate students lamenting that they had been excluded from the first round of stimulus checks because they were still considered dependents on their parents’ taxes.)
  • Build trust with sources by explaining how journalists do their jobs: While a politician or university president can be expected to know the difference between “on the record”, “off the record” and “on background,” regular people might not, especially those who haven’t had any experience with the media before. This helps build their trust in you and heads off potential misunderstandings before stories are published.
  • Shadow more than one person at a time: If you want to do a story that requires you to follow a student for several months, start with more than one person as people tend to drop off for many different reasons that have nothing to do with you. See what mode of communication your sources prefer. Some people never respond to email but are quick to reply to a text or a DM.
  • Focus on nuanced reporting:  If you’re a freelancer, don’t try to beat the breaking news cycle unless you already have a relationship with a news outlet that can turn things around quickly. Instead, focus on reporting a longer, more in-depth story that looks at the nuance of the issue and can sometimes fact check the first media reports. Think about the parts of the story that the breaking news stories don’t tell – For education coverage, it’s often the voices of students that get left out.
  • Read student newspapers: Another good place to take the pulse on what’s happening on campuses is to read student newspapers. Student papers, like local newsrooms, are often the first to report on breaking stories. But when you do, make sure to credit them.
  • Look deeply into an issue:  Sometimes stories start just by looking into an issue to see if there’s something more there. When Willis’ editor suggested he and his colleagues at EdSource look into the working conditions of adjunct professors at community colleges, he had to do a deep dive. Some of the data was available at the chancellor’s office, but other information was only available from individual community colleges – 116 in total. “The hardest part was finding and collecting the data to see if the idea panned out, which involved getting data from multiple sources then merging it,” Willis said.