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Growth of Career Education in the U.S.

There’s an interesting – some would say confounding – contradiction between the reality and perceptions many people have about career education. Study after study has shown that career education – or more appropriately termed, Career Technical Education (CTE) – programs on high school campuses are beneficial to both college-bound and non-college-bound students. Yet those benefits seem to go unnoticed by a large segment of the population. CTE programs at community colleges – and even some four-year schools – are receiving greater funding and experiencing substantial growth. Yet many experts agree that greater investment is needed to bring CTE to its full potential. So, the good news is that the growth of CTE education in the United States is real. The not-so-good news is that the positive impact of that growth remains limited.

What is Career Technical Education?

Career Technical Education, generally speaking, refers to secondary and postsecondary education programs that place greater emphasis on teaching students practical knowledge and skills that translate into real jobs, and place less emphasis on academics. Put another way, CTE programs provide a combination of core academic skills with employability, technical and job-specific skills, with the goal of producing highly-skilled and highly- employable graduates.

CTE programs and courses can be found not only on high school, technical school and community college campuses, but also at career centers and four-year colleges and universities. CTE provides programs in 16 “career clusters” that include:

  • Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
  • Architecture and Construction
  • Arts, A/V Technology and Communications
  • Business, Management and Administration
  • Education and Training
  • Finance
  • Government and Public Administration
  • Health Science
  • Hospitality and Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety and Security
  • Manufacturing
  • Marketing, Sales and Service
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Transportation, Distribution and Logistics

The need for CTE education is clear, and employers are making noise about it. They need skilled workers and there simply aren’t enough available. In fact, this Manpower Group study found that for the fifth consecutive year, skilled trades job positions were the hardest to fill globally. And according to a recent Deloitte study, of the three and one-half million manufacturing jobs likely to need filling between 2015 and 2025, two million are expected to go unfilled due to lack of skills workers.

How could this happen?

A Brief History of Career Education

The beginnings of career education can be traced back one hundred years to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 which provided funding to states for secondary vocational education in the areas of agriculture, homemaking, and trade and industrial education. The purpose of Smith-Hughes was to increase the nation’s competitiveness in the emerging industrialized global economy and to alleviate unemployment among urban youth. The success of Smith-Hughes and later related legislation and programs was, however, limited – often involving predominantly poor and minority students and leading to low-skilled and low-paying jobs.

The trajectory of vocational education changed beginning with the passage of the Carl. D. Perkins Vocational Education Act of 1984 and its subsequent amendments. Integration of more academic skills into vocational programs, partnerships between schools and businesses, and a shift in focus from single-job to a broader career perspective helped bring vocational education up-to-date. The term “vocational education” itself was replaced, first with “career education” and later “Career Technical Education.” All of these changes were met with solid but limited success.

CTE Today: Not Your Parents’ Vocational Education

Today’s global economy is driven by constant innovation that has resulted in a strong and growing demand for highly-skilled workers with the flexibility to apply their skills to meet constantly changing employer needs. CTE educators understand the modern job market and, working closely with business and industry leaders, are responding with rigorous programs designed to prepare students for high-demand jobs.

The results have been encouraging, to say the least. A recent study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reviewed data from Arkansas programs and found that high school students with greater exposure to CTE:

  • Were far more likely to graduate (by a margin of 21%) than similar students with lesser CTE exposure;
  • Were more likely to enroll in two-year college programs, be employed, and earn higher wages;
  • Were just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers; and
  • Produced a significant boost to boys and students from low-income families.

Findings from several other studies have confirmed the success of CTE. Here are a few examples:

  • The graduation rate for high school students concentrating on CTE programs is 93%, compared to 80% for high school students overall.
  • 91% of high school grads earning two to three CTE credits went on to enroll in college.
  • Research from Texas, Colorado and Virginia indicates that students who graduate with a technical or applied science associate degree out-earn bachelor’s degree holders by $2,000 to $11,000 a year.
  • 27% of those holding less than a bachelor’s degree, including certificates and licenses, earn more than the average bachelor’s degree holder.
  • In terms of return on investment, Wisconsin taxpayers receive over $12 for every dollar invested in the state’s technical college system. In Washington, taxpayers receive $9 for every dollar invested in secondary CTE programs.

Success Leads to Growth

Two more telling statistics:

  • CTE now serves over 94% of all high school students in the U.S.; and
  • An estimated 12.5 million high school and college students are enrolled in CTE programs across the nation.

Roadblocks to Further Growth

Almost from the start, vocational education has carried the stigma of being strictly for students without the knowledge, skills and – let’s face it – intellect to succeed in a postsecondary academic setting. In short, parents and students alike shared in the belief that vocational education programs put students on a career path to nowhere.

Notwithstanding the significant changes to curricula and the CTE rebranding, that stigma – incorrectly – carries on into the present. Parents today were raised in a culture that enforced the belief that career success – and public respect – depended on obtaining, at minimum, an academic degree from a four-year college or university. And that may have been true at one time. Things have changed significantly, however, and the success of CTE is one of the biggest reasons why.

Still, flawed perceptions remain.

Moving Forward: How to Grow Career Education

There’s plenty that can be done to support the continuing success and growth of CTE, including:

  • Industry Partnerships: Maintaining strong and close ties to business and industry remains probably the single most important key to the continued growth and success of CTE. Local business participation is particularly crucial, since it results in program offerings geared toward local employment needs. A 2014 survey, however, found that nearly half of responding CTE educators were dissatisfied with their access to industry partners and mentors, so more needs to be done.
  • Funding and Reauthorization of the Perkins Act: CTE programs are funded primarily through state and local taxes as well as the Perkins Act, which will, under the current reauthorization proposal, supply state CTE programs with over $1.1 billion in 2017 and gradually increase funding amounts through 2020. That proposal has yet pass in Congress, however. Given the proven return on investment of CTE programs, it is crucial that the Perkins Act be reauthorized and that state and local governments continue to increase program funding.
  • Continued Emphasis on Long-Term Career Preparation over Single-Job Training: Originally, vocational education was based on the premise that an individual would remain employed in the same occupation for his or her entire working life. By the 1980’s it had become clear that the days of working at one job for a lifetime were over. CTE correctly places a much greater emphasis on long-term career preparation that provides its participants with skill-sets that are flexible and portable. CTE educators must continue to modify program offerings and adapt curricula to meet the constantly evolving needs of employers.
  • Increased Rebranding Efforts: As we have seen, one of the major challenges to CTE is the continued perception that CTE is just a new name for vocational education. That perception must change. CTE providers, as well as the businesses that benefit from CTE, would do well to step up their efforts in program promotion.
  • Increased Employment and Participation of Educators and Counselors: The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-school-counselor ratio of 250:1. The actual ratio (as of 2014) was 491:1. The continuing understaffing of high school counselors – and postsecondary counselors, for that matter – means that it is much more difficult for parents and students to be adequately informed about CTE options. Remedying this problem would go a long way in closing the CTE information gap.
  • Continued Program Success: The old saying, “nothing succeeds like success” certainly applies here. As more students graduate from CTE programs and transition into high-paying, in-demand jobs, or move on to four-year degree programs, the public and media are bound to take notice. The result? More CTE demand.

Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU) is the national organization serving postsecondary career education schools, staff , and most importantly, our students! We are a voluntary membership organization that serves as the national voice for the for-profit higher education sector. Today, more than 600 campuses across the nation are represented through their school’s membership.

Our member schools provide skills-based education opportunities to nontraditional students, particularly veterans, working mothers, and parents, to help them open doors and secure employment in today’s workforce. These schools equip students with the career skills they need to succeed – from allied health and nursing, to mechanics, welding, culinary arts, cosmetology, truck driving, veterinary medicine and beyond!