Career & technical education for high school graduation

Career and technical education (CTE) or vocational training programs teach high school students, especially those at risk of dropping out, job skills needed for specific occupations as they complete their academic coursework. CTE programs often include internships or job shadowing outside of school settings. Some programs also include support services such as childcare, transportation, or job placement assistance, along with remedial coursework and life skills training (CG-TFR Education). CTE programs can prepare students for careers in fields such as information technology, health services, hospitality and tourism, communications, advanced manufacturing, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Many of these careers require additional education such as professional certification or associate degrees at 2- or 4-year colleges (Dougherty 2016, ACTE-CTE).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased high school graduation

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased employment

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced arrests

  • Reduced incarceration

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that career and technical education (CTE) for at-risk students improves high school graduation rates (CG-TFR Education, Campbell-Wilson 2011, Dougherty 2016). Participation in CTE courses, especially as a concentrated program of study, may also increase students’ post-secondary education, employment, and earnings (Dougherty 2016, Neumark 2009). Additional evidence is needed to confirm long-term labor market effects.

On average, vocational training increases graduation rates among students at risk of dropping out by 16% (CG-TFR Education). CTE programs appear to have the greatest effects for boys and students from low income families (Dougherty 2016). An Arkansas-based study suggests students with a concentrated CTE program of study are more likely to graduate from high school than students in CTE without a concentration (Dougherty 2016).

Students who complete occupation-specific vocational courses or tracks realize increases in earnings up to 7 years post-graduation, while students who complete non-specific vocational courses do not realize greater earnings (, ). School-to-work initiatives that combine academic and vocational education such as CTE programs can increase post-high school employment (Neumark 2009). Evaluations of Job Corps, a widely implemented vocational education program, show increases in education, earnings, and employment two years after program completion; however, the effect on earnings appears to fade in the long-term, except for participants who were older (20-24) when they enrolled. Job Corps also appears to reduce arrest and incarceration rates among participants (Mathematica-Schochet 2006). A study of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), a vocational education program for military careers, finds reductions in early turnover and suggests that programs with carefully aligned occupation training may increase life-time earnings by improving job match and fostering long-term employment relationships ().

Successful CTE programs identify high-growth industries, align CTE courses to specific skills and credentials, encourage CTE concentrations, and make high school CTE credits count toward specific postsecondary credentials (Dougherty 2016). Implementation challenges such as staffing or funding difficulties, and low program attendance or completion rates, can reduce the effectiveness of vocational training programs (Campbell-Wilson 2011).

The cost of vocational training varies significantly, ranging from $2,100 to $10,500 per student. The estimated benefit to cost ratio for vocational training ranges from 2.9 to 1 to 6.8 to 1 (CG-TFR Education).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

As of 2008, 94% of traditional public schools offer CTE courses, 71% have internships outside of school, and 4% are specialized career/technical schools (US ED-CTE statistics).

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, known as Perkins IV, is the primary source of federal funds to support secondary and postsecondary CTE programs (PCRN-Legislation). State governments can also support vocational education programs with policies to improve career readiness and align CTE with the labor market, as in Arkansas (ACE-CTE, Dougherty 2016). 

National non-profits offer vocational programs that are designed to complement academic efforts to earn a high school diploma or a GED. Job Corps, for example, has training centers in all 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico (Job Corps). High Schools That Work (HSTW), implemented in more than 1,200 sites in 30 states and Washington DC, also includes career and technical education (SREB-HSTW).

Multi-sector partnerships also support CTE programs. For example, Manchester School District, the University System of New Hampshire, Manchester Community College and local businesses support STEAM Ahead (Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), which offers courses for college credit, project-based learning, and internships for high school students (STEAM Ahead). The California Department of Education, the James Irvine Foundation, and the California Community Colleges also collaborate to support Linked Learning Pathways, a career and technical education approach used in 63 districts across the state (Linked Learning-CTE).

Implementation Resources

PCRN-CTE resources - US Department of Education (US ED), Division of Academic and Technical Education, Perkins Collaborative Resource Network (PCRN). Secondary career and technical education (CTE): Grant programs, resources, national initiatives.

Citations - Evidence

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Campbell-Wilson 2011 - Wilson SJ, Tanner-Smith EE, Lipsey MW, Steinka-Fry KT, Morrison J. Dropout prevention and intervention programs: Effects on school completion and dropout among school-aged children and youth: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2011:8.

CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) Education Programs to Promote Health Equity.

Mathematica-Schochet 2006 - Schochet PZ, Burghardt J, Mcconnell S. National Job Corps study and longer-term follow- up study: Impact and benefit-cost findings using survey and summary earnings records data. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2006.

Pema 2012* - Pema E, Mehay S. Career effects of occupation-related vocational education: Evidence from the military’s internal labor market. Economics of Education Review. 2012;31(5):680–693.

Dougherty 2016 - Dougherty SM, Petrilli MJ, Zeehandelaar D. Career and technical education in high school: Does it improve student outcomes? Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute; 2016.

Bishop 2004* - Bishop JH, Mane F. The impacts of career-technical education on high school labor market success. Economics of Education Review. 2004;23(4):381-402.

Neumark 2009 - Neumark D. Alternative labor market policies to increase economic self-sufficiency: Mandating higher wages, subsidizing employment, and increasing productivity. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2009: Working Paper 14807.

Meer 2007* - Meer J. Evidence on the returns to secondary vocational education. Economics of Education Review. 2007;26(5):559-573.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Job Corps - Job Corps. A US Department of Labor web site.

US ED-CTE statistics - US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Career and technical education (CTE) statistics: Secondary or high school level tables and figures.

Dougherty 2016 - Dougherty SM, Petrilli MJ, Zeehandelaar D. Career and technical education in high school: Does it improve student outcomes? Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute; 2016.

Linked Learning-CTE - Linked Learning Alliance. What is Linked Learning? Integrating rigorous academics with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education (CTE).

PCRN-Legislation - US Department of Education (US ED), Division of Academic and Technical Education, Perkins Collaborative Resource Network (PCRN). Legislation: Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins IV).

ACE-CTE - State of Arkansas, Department of Career Education (ACE). Career and technical education (CTE).

STEAM Ahead - STEAM Ahead. Pathways: STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) at Manchester High School West.

SREB-HSTW - Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). High Schools That Work (HSTW).

Date Last Updated

Feb 6, 2018