On June 15, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in conjunction with the Department’s Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) issued a Dear Colleague Letter (“Letter”) addressing gender equity in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs offered by schools. The Letter stresses that all federally funded schools must ensure equitable access, regardless of gender, to CTE programs by eliminating discriminatory practices and taking steps to expand participation of students in fields such as nursing, IT, and computer science where individuals of one sex might be underrepresented. CTE programs are defined in essence by the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins Act) as organized educational activities that offer courses which provide individuals with relevant technical knowledge and skills needed to prepare for careers in current or emerging professions and which provide technical skill proficiency, an industry-recognized credential, a certificate, or an associate degree.

In the Letter, OCR and OCTAE clarify that disproportionate gender enrollment in a CTE program alone does not constitute a violation of federal law but stress that schools receiving federal funding must (1) conduct their admission, recruitment, and counseling practices in a nondiscriminatory manner and (2) respond to disproportionate gender enrollment by reviewing their policies and practices. The Letter provides recommendations and practical examples to help schools address potential underrepresentation in CTE programs, including the following:

  • The first step in ensuring gender equity in CTE programs is through the recruitment of a diverse pool of students. Under Title IX, recipients of federal funding are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex in recruitment. Schools should portray a broad range of occupational opportunities that are not divided on the basis of sex in their recruitment activities and promotional materials.
  • A school may not discriminate on the basis of sex in admissions, including by using any test or criterion for admission that has a disproportionately adverse effect on individuals of one sex, unless certain criteria are met. No school may exclude a person from access to any CTE classes or from admission to any CTE institution on the basis of sex.
  • A school must ensure that its counseling practices are nondiscriminatory and that it does not direct or urge any student to enroll in a particular career or program or predict a student’s prospects for success in any career or program based on that student’s sex. To ensure this, a school could perform an overview of its counseling staff’s procedures and subsequently provide training to address any issues of implicit bias, ambient bias or sex stereotyping observed in the overview.
  • A school must publish a widely-distributed notice of nondiscrimination stating that the school does not discriminate on the basis of sex in its CTE programs and provide contact information for the school’s designated Title IX Coordinator. This notice should be in addition to the annual notice the school publishes regarding nondiscrimination in its education programs at large.
  • A school may use its Title IX Coordinator to monitor students’ participation in CTE programs to identify those programs with disproportionate enrollment based on sex and ensure that disproportionality is not the result of sex discrimination by reviewing data under the Perkins Act and OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection as well as working with other employees to review counseling practices.
  • Among other procedural requirements under Title IX, a school must adopt and publish grievance procedures for resolving sex discrimination complaints promptly and equitably. Schools may want to review grievance procedure complaint data to examine trends specifically applicable to CTE programs and address those concerns.
  • Title IX’s prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of marital and parental status, as well as its prohibition of sex-based harassment, are essential to eliminating practices that discourage continued enrollment and achievement in CTE programs by people of each sex.

Schools with CTE programs should take this opportunity to review their recruitment, admissions, and counseling practices and materials to ensure not only that their methods are not contributing to disproportionate gender enrollment in CTE programs but that they also are taking steps to rectify any disproportionate enrollment in their CTE programs. Moreover, schools should ensure that their Title IX Coordinator is adequately equipped to identify and address unlawful discrimination in their CTE programs and to take proactive steps to improve equitable access, participation and outcomes for CTE students, regardless of sex.

Gautham S. Ganesan will be a second-year law student at Notre Dame Law School this fall and is a Franczek Radelet LEADS Fellow.