Education pluralism: The state of career and technical education

November 11, 2022

With midterms elections this week, Democrats and Republicans are contemplating how they fared in their respective races – part of which might be how well they wooed the working-class vote. In recent years Democrats have been trying to stanch the flow of working-class voters leaving their party, while Republicans have been trying to persuade them that their party is a good home for them politically.  

To win the working-class vote in coming elections, candidates from any party would do well to take a closer look at supporting career and technical education – the pipeline to many occupations held by those in the working class. That journey begins by understanding the background and development of career and technical education. 

What is career and technical education? 

Career and Technical Education (CTE) is career-focused education that leads to a specific vocation, career or trade in a current or emerging field.  

Since CTE is career-focused by design, it is usually offered at the secondary education level – junior high school and high school, although post-secondary and adult CTE also exist as natural extensions. CTE today contemplates the possibility of a college degree alongside a trade, which is why it often includes concurrent enrollment for college credits.  

Terminology in this area can be unclear and overlapping, especially depending on the state, but “vocational school,” “trade school” and “technical school” all fit under the umbrella of CTE.  

Students may seek out CTE for a variety of reasons, including trying out a career before enrolling in post-secondary school, earning a credential with marketplace value for little or no debt, entering a well-paying job, and earning concurrent enrollment credit toward a college degree. CTE in secondary education exists within the public school system and is funded with public money.  

A quick history  

Though CTE is gaining new awareness and momentum, and even bipartisan support, for some people it still carries a stigma for being a “lesser” alternative to college or for its past association with tracking students (by race and status) for different types of training/jobs.  

In truth, CTE has its roots as far back as the founding of this nation, when apprenticeships were still common. As a systematic approach to public education eventually became popular, eventually a systemic instruction for CTE also began to take shape, with the first manual training school opening in St. Louis in 1879.  

By World War I – and in response to it – the federal government began investing in CTE, first with its passage of the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917, which funded agriculture, homemaking, trade and industrial education.  

By 1936, Congress invested another $14 million annually into vocational education in the George-Deen Act of 1936, expanding it to include teacher education and marketing occupation training. The George-Barden Act of 1946 then put $29 million into student organizations related to agriculture such as Future Farmers of America and New Farmers of America.  

The Vocational Education Act of 1963 applied vocational education to “persons of all ages and all communities” and based funding on student population. Amendments to this act eventually expanded vocational education to postsecondary education students as well as supported opportunities for women and girls.  

In honor of a vocational education advocate named Carl D. Perkins, federal legislation for vocational education eventually took the name Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, which is what the funding remains named after today (“Perkins funding”).  

Under this new name, federal vocational legislation in 1990 began to look more like modern-day CTE with accountability measures, academic and business partnerships, alignment among entities, and the retirement of the term “vocational education” in 2006 in favor of career and technical education. 

Updates have been made since then, in 2018 and 2020, with a greater focus on local needs and flexibility. 

Today, some states use differentiating terms, but in general, CTE is the preferred term and now includes a broader range of fields than ever. 

A look at the nation 

As of 2019, there were 30 million unfilled jobs that did not require a bachelor’s degree and paid a median income of $55,000 or more. This reality reflects the nationwide skills gap that exists and impacts our country’s economy. 

Luckily, with increased awareness in CTE, today more than 12.3 million secondary and post-secondary students are enrolled in CTE programs across the country. For comparison, in the 2014-15 school year 7.4 million students were enrolled in CTE courses supported by federal funding. 

Part of what makes CTE unique is that students can explore career clusters, which are groups of career fields with a variety of linked or similar occupations. This early exposure to careers can help students determine career options prior to paying for college or post-secondary training. 

High school graduation rates are positively impacted by students who pursue CTE; three out of four high school students (75%) graduate on time whereas nine out of 10 CTE high school students (90%) graduate on time. These positive improvements in graduation are especially helpful for vulnerable populations.  And 85% of CTE students nationwide are planning to get further post-secondary education. 

A look at Utah 

In Utah for the 2020-21 school year, 172,020 students were enrolled in Utah’s Career and Technical education programs, which was nearly 26% of public-school students. This is made possible through Utah’s Career and Technical education programs, which include 35 career pathways (sequence of courses) and 13 career clusters (group of related careers). 

As with the national data, there are plenty of positive benefits for CTE students at the state level. For those students who concentrated in a CTE pathway (concentrated meaning they completed certain requirements in a single CTE program of study), 65.2% went on to postsecondary education, advanced training, employment or military service. In fact, 64,864 Utah students earned skill certifications for employment, and a total of 101,532 CTE concurrent enrollment credits were earned by Utah students, which can help them transition into completing a college degree. Utah students who take CTE courses have much higher high school graduation rates (96.1%) than their traditional public-school counterparts (88.1%). 

As for funding, Utah CTE programs, especially at the secondary level, are part of the public school system. CTE is paid for by Utah’s weighted pupil unit (WPU) and federal funds like the Perkins program.  

In FY2022, Utah received $16,574,719 in Perkins funding, of which 60% was spent on secondary students and 40% on post-secondary students. (For comparison in our region, in the same year, Arizona received $33,327,643 and spent 82% on secondary students and 18% on post-secondary students. Idaho received $8,371,565 and spent 65% on secondary students and 35% on post-secondary students.) 

The career and technical education of today is no longer just an alternative to college. It is an approach to education that gives students marketable skills and credentials for employment as early as secondary school, while also giving students opportunities for further post-secondary education, including college or employment.  

Supporting CTE as a candidate or elected official sends the message that these fields are valued in the economy and worthy of investment. It is also the right thing to do for increasing education pluralism, which is an important objective for America’s future workforce and civil society.

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