With rising college costs and sky-high college dropout rates—almost one-third of American undergraduates quit before completing their degree—young people are looking for alternatives to the traditional four-year college pathway. Enter career and technical education (CTE), which combines traditional academic teaching with specific technical and career-oriented skills for students in middle, secondary and post-secondary schools. When done well, CTE expands opportunities for student success after high school while strengthening workplace readiness.
Yet much of America is fumbling CTE, unlike most other modern nations, which already provide multiple well-developed career tracks for students in high school. Germany, for instance, provides a dual education system that combines salaried apprenticeships with classroom learning, likely contributing to Germany’s exceptionally low unemployment rate. Other countries also make technical/vocational learning an integral part of secondary school to help prepare a workforce equipped with advanced technical skills while ensuring that all graduates have genuine opportunities to succeed.
America’s history with “vocational education” was rocky and sometimes shameful, as it too often steered disadvantaged students and those of color into lower pathways with less earning potential. But old-style “tracking” is thankfully dying out. A 2019 Fordham Institute study found that while White students were more likely to “concentrate” in any CTE field than Black students—concentrate means take at least three CTE courses—the latter were overrepresented in courses linked to higher-paying fields, such as health science and information technology. Moreover, CTE is not a path away from college. A 2016 Fordham Institute study found that students who took more career-oriented courses were just as likely to attend a four-year college program as their peers. Other research shows a similar pattern. In other words, CTE doesn’t hinder those with traditional college aspirations.
We find five additional benefits for students who take CTE courses in high school.
First, CTE is linked to increased graduation rates. Evidence from California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and North Carolina shows increases tied to participation in CTE. A Fordham study conducted by Shaun M. Dougherty found that concentrating in CTE increased one’s likelihood of graduating. What might explain that result? Eighty-one percent of high school dropouts say they would have stayed in school if they had received relevant, real-world learning opportunities. CTE courses offer precisely that.
Second, CTE increases postsecondary outcomes, particularly for women and disadvantaged students. Female students, students of color, and lower-income CTE students also see increased rates of college attendance, and students who concentrate in a particular field are more likely to attend college and obtain a postsecondary credential in that field. More research indicates that, compared to students who don’t concentrate, Black and Latino CTE concentrators see larger increases in college attendance (an 8.9 percent difference), further demonstrating that CTE courses do not discourage students from attending two- or four-year colleges.
Third, CTE can boost one’s income. One study found that CTE concentration is associated with a large increase in initial earnings ($1,792 in the first year after high school) that persists even seven years after high school. Other analysts found that each additional year of upper-level CTE coursework taken while in high school increases workers’ salaries by 2 percent above what they would have otherwise earned. And a Fordham-commissioned study found that high schoolers who earn a credential in information technology, health science, business, or audio/visual arts experience “postsecondary-success,” meaning they enroll in college or earn a living wage (at least 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or $25,760) after high school.
Fourth, CTE can enhance other valuable skills. Research shows that possessing “soft skills” like perseverance, grit, self-efficacy, work ethic, and conscientiousness can increase life outcomes for students. Other studies indicate that appropriate social and behavioral attitudes are also essential for success in the future labor force. Good CTE classrooms blend academic skills with hands-on training and real-life experiences. For instance, students might assist in collecting blood samples, help change the brakes on a vehicle, or learn to design a website for a business. Such direct learning experiences strengthen non-cognitive skills that students will use in any type of job.
Fifth, CTE can be a game-changer for the most vulnerable students. CTE during high school confers the greatest benefit on students who need it the most, particularly when it comes to college attendance. Obtaining an industry-recognized credential (IRC)—a license or certificate demonstrating competency in a particular field—can be transformative for such young people, providing an economic boost for the whole family that gives them hope for a better future and a way out of poverty. Studies also show that, compared to non-concentrators, CTE concentrators are more likely to avoid poverty by remaining employed or participating in educational training programs—no matter what career path they choose after high school.
Current CTE programs in America already provide positive outcomes for students. But—as in other countries—they could do far more. Here are three suggestions:
1. Make more time for high-quality CTE programs and apprenticeships during the school day. High school course requirements tend to be highly regulated and prescriptive, with the majority of states specifying multiple required courses in the core subject areas, as well as in subjects like foreign language, physical education, and the arts. This reality led Fordham’s Michael Petrilli to ask recently, “How are students supposed to take career and technical programs, do on-the-job training, or tackle apprenticeships when their schedules are already full of mandatory academic courses?” One suggestion: Rethink the time-based standard for awarding course credit that we call the “Carnegie unit.”
2. Increase employer participation. If employers don’t take part with gusto, resources, and imagination, it is impossible to ensure that CTE offerings will be relevant to the workforce of today. States need to reduce the regulatory, financial, and logistical barriers that prevent employers from teaming up with schools. For starters, it’s helpful to provide guidance to industry about the rules surrounding youth apprenticeships. These take many forms. Rhode Island, for instance, offers this advice regarding risks associated with hiring minors: “For unpaid internships, it is recommended that schools and internship hosts enter into ‘Indemnification, Hold Harmless’ contracts in which schools extend their liability policies to businesses to provide added peace of mind.” Additionally, states can help districts forge relationships with employers with whom they already collaborate, including “state advisory boards and partnerships with workforce development boards and industry associations.”
3. Align calendars, schedules, and transportation systems so that schools, CTE centers, and workplaces can coordinate their efforts. When schools that send students to CTE programs close for professional development days, holiday breaks, or operate under different start and end dates, many students must miss their technical and apprenticeship training—jeopardizing completion of the programs and increasing the chances that they will opt out altogether. What’s more, transporting students between schools and CTE centers or apprenticeship locations can be difficult, not only because of differing schedules, but also high costs and lengthy travel times. Transportation must be adequately funded by the “sending” school, or else program developers must think creatively about how to handle this, such as allowing older students to drive themselves instead of having to rely on fixed bus schedules.
To sum up, career and technical education helps students attain multiple positive outcomes. It is linked to increases in graduation rates, college attendance, earnings, and soft skills—especially for the most vulnerable students. While there is ample room to improve, many modern-day technical programs are helping young people to succeed. Whether students seek to attend college right away or choose to enter the workforce, CTE can serve as a helpful launching pad.