Career & technical education for high school completion

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential for mixed impact on disparities

Strategies with this rating could increase and decrease disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence or expert opinion.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

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 training1. Many CTE programs are based in regional technical education centers separate from local high schools; such programs typically arrange transportation for participating students between the centers and high school campuses2. 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 colleges3, 4.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased high school completion

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased employment

  • Increased earnings

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that career and technical education (CTE) for at-risk students improves high school completion rates1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8. Participation in CTE courses, especially as a concentrated program of study, may also increase students’ postsecondary education, employment, and earnings3, 9, 10. Additional evidence is needed to confirm long-term labor market effects.

On average, vocational training increases high school completion rates among students at risk of dropping out by 16%1. Many studies suggest CTE programs have the greatest effects on on-time high school completion and earnings for male students and students from families with low incomes3, 6, 11. A Connecticut-based study of CTE-focused high schools reports positive effects on school attendance, test scores, high school completion, and earnings for male participants only12. However, one study suggests students with higher income backgrounds may benefit more from attending CTE-focused high schools than peers with lower income backgrounds6.

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 concentration3. Taking more STEM-related CTE courses can reduce the likelihood of school absences and chronic absenteeism13. CTE courses taken later in high school (11th & 12th grades) may have greater effects on increased on-time completion and reduced dropout than courses taken earlier in high school8. Participation in CTE coursework can increase on-time high school completion due to increased school engagement and perceived value of high school education7.

Students with disabilities can benefit from CTE programs; for these students taking more CTE coursework in comprehensive high schools or attending CTE-focused schools can increase the likelihood of high school completion2. Participation in a concentrated CTE program can increase the likelihood of on-time high school completion for students with learning disabilities14 and the likelihood of employment for students with learning disabilities and emotional disturbances compared to peers who are not enrolled in such a concentration14, 15.

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 earnings16, 17. Participation in upper-level CTE coursework is associated with increased earnings, whereas taking introductory CTE coursework appears to have no impact10. Attending CTE-focused high schools may increase the likelihood of earning a certificate for industry-specific skills6. School-to-work initiatives that combine academic and vocational education such as CTE programs can increase post-high school employment9.

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 towards specific postsecondary credentials3. Improving access to high-quality CTE schools and programs, creating consistent work-based learning opportunities, and providing accessible information about careers to guide students’ choices are also recommended for successful CTE programs18. Implementation challenges such as staffing or funding difficulties, and low program attendance or completion rates, can reduce the effectiveness of vocational training programs5.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential for mixed impact on disparities: supported by some evidence.

There is some evidence that career and technical education (CTE) programs can have mixed impacts on disparities in high school completion and employment outcomes, decreasing disparities between students from families with high and low incomes but increasing disparities between male and female students. Students from families with low incomes enroll and benefit more from CTE courses compared to students from families with higher incomes3, 6, 11. However, some studies show that male students participate in and benefit from the programs more than female students3, 11, 12. Students with disabilities who participate in CTE programs are more likely to graduate on-time from high school and be employed than students with disabilities who don’t participate2, 14, 15. A report on students enrolled in CTE programs in 2020 across 40 states indicates that white students took CTE courses more than non-white students and Black and Hispanic students had less access to programs focused on STEM fields, which often lead to high paying jobs27.

What is the relevant historical background?

The Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act of 1917 made the first federal investment in secondary vocational education for agriculture, homemaking, and trade and industrial education. In the 1960s, the federal government expanded funding for vocational education to all students, including students with academic and economic disadvantage and students with disabilities28. The Vocational Education Amendments of 1976 aimed to eliminate sex stereotyping and discrimination in vocational education and promote equal opportunities for female students29. In 2006, vocational education officially changed its name to career and technical education (CTE) in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins IV). Historically, vocational education was criticized for detracting minority students and students from families with low incomes away from college and into low-wage work30, 31. New CTE concentrations intend to support nontraditional career preparation and focus on STEM and STEM-related fields in response to changes in economic and social conditions as well as labor market demand32, 33. However, the percentage of high schools that provide STEM concentrations vary widely by state19 and more efforts are needed to remove systemic barriers and bias in education for equity in CTE34.

Equity Considerations
  • How can CTE programs tailor recruitment to enroll more female and racial minority students?
  • What career guidance can CTE programs provide students to keep them in programs through graduation?
  • How can CTE programs partner with local or regional employers to ensure adequate employment opportunities after graduation?
  • What resources are needed to hire qualified teachers and purchase essential equipment for high quality courses in growing fields like STEM?
Implementation Examples

During the 2016-17 school year, 98% of traditional public school districts offer career and technical education (CTE) courses, and 77% have work-based learning opportunities such as on-the-job training, internships, and clinical experiences19.

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, known as Perkins V, is the primary source of federal funds to support secondary and postsecondary CTE programs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.20. Perkins V also funds the Native American Career and Technical Education Program which awards American Indian tribes, tribal organizations, Alaska Native entities, and eligible Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded schools to provide CTE programs for native students21. State governments can also support vocational education programs with policies to improve career readiness and align CTE with the labor market, as in Arkansas and Massachusetts3, 22.

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, D.C., and Puerto Rico23. Making Schools Work, a comprehensive school improvement effort for student career pathways, has been implemented in thousands of schools and includes career and technical education24.

Multi-sector partnerships also support CTE programs. For example, Boston area professionals and enthusiasts in various fields and local universities and businesses support STEAM Ahead (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), which offers courses, project-based learning, and workshops for area students students25. 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 70 districts across the state26.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

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

US ED-CTE statistics - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. 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.


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1 CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) center-based early childhood education programs (ECE) to improve educational outcomes that are associated with long-term health as well as social- and health-related outcomes.

2 Dougherty 2018b - Dougherty SM, Grindal T, Hehir T. The impact of career and technical education on students with disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 2018;29(2):108-118.

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

4 ACTE-CTE - Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE). What is career and technical education (CTE)?

5 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.

6 Dougherty 2018a - Dougherty SM. The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: Causal evidence from Massachusetts. Education Finance and Policy. 2018;13(2):119-148.

7 Xing 2021 - Xing X, Gordon HRD. Mediating effects of school engagement between high school on-time completion and career and technical education. Vocations and Learning. 2021;14:1-21.

8 Gottfried 2018 - Gottfried MA, Plasman JS. Linking the timing of career and technical education coursetaking with high school dropout and college-going behavior. American Educational Research Journal. 2018;55(2):325-361.

9 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.

10 Kreisman 2020 - Kreisman D, Stange K. Vocational and career tech education in American high schools: The value of depth over breadth. Education Finance and Policy. 2020;15(1):11-44.

11 MDRC-CTE 2019 - Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC), Results for America. What works in career and technical education: Evidence underlying programs and policies that work. 2019.

12 Brookings-Brunner 2019 - Brunner E, Dougherty S, Ross S. The promise of career and technical education. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2019.

13 Plasman 2020 - Plasman JS, Gottfried MA. School absence in the United States: Understanding the role of STEM-related vocational education and training in encouraging attendance. Journal of Vocational Education and Training. 2020:1-23.

14 Theobald 2019 - Theobald RJ, Goldhaber DD, Gratz TM, Holden KL. Career and technical education, inclusion, and postsecondary outcomes for students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities. 2019;52(2):109-119.

15 Wagner 2017 - Wagner MM, Newman LA, Javitz HS. Vocational education course taking and post-high school employment of youth with emotional disturbances. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals. 2017;40(3):132-143.

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

17 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.

18 CRPE-Heyward 2019 - Heyward G. Schools lead the way but the system must change: Rethinking career and technical education. Seattle, WA: The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE); 2019.

19 US ED-CTE data story - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED). Bridging the skills gap: Career and technical education in high school. September 2019.

20 PCRN-Legislation - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Division of Academic and Technical Education, Perkins Collaborative Resource Network (PCRN). Legislation: Perkins V.

21 PCRN-NACTEP - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Division of Academic and Technical Education, Perkins Collaborative Resource Network (PCRN). Native American Career and Technical Education Program (NACTEP).

22 MA-CTE - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Career/vocational technical education (CTE).

23 Job Corps - Job Corps. A U.S. Department of Labor web site.

24 SREB-MSW - Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Connecting classrooms, careers and college: SREB’s Making Schools Work school improvement process. July 2019.

25 STEAM Ahead - STEAM Ahead. Pathways: STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) in the Greater Boston Area.

26 Linked Learning - Linked Learning Alliance. About the Linked Learning approach: Combining college and career preparation.

27 Hechinger-CTE 2021 - Butrymowicz S. First nationwide look at racial breakdown of career education confirms deep divides. The Hechinger Report. September 2021.

28 ACTE-History - Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). History of career and technical education (CTE).

29 Stromquist 1993 - Stromquist NP. Sex-equity legislation in education: The state as promoter of women’s rights. Review of Educational Research. 1993;63(4):379-407.

30 AEI-Malkus 2019 - Malkus N. The evolution of career and technical education: 1982-2013. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute (AEI); 2019.

31 MDRC-Lewy - Lewy EB. Learning from the past: The evolution of vocational education. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2021.

32 Sublett 2019 - Sublett C, Griffith D. How aligned is career and technical education to local labor markets? Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute; 2019.

33 Harris 2020 - Harris JC, Warner MT, Yee K, Wilkerson SB. Assessing the alignment between West Virginia’s high school career and technical education programs and the labor market. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia. 2020.

34 NAPE-CTE STEM - Burbank C, Romanillos R, Williams B. Equity in CTE & STEM root causes and strategies: A call to action. PA: NAPE Education Foundation, Inc.; 2021.