Career & technical education for high school completion

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
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.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

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.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased high school completion

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased employment

  • Increased earnings

Evidence of 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 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 toward 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 student choice 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.

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

During the 2016-17 school year, 98% of traditional public school districts offer 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 50 states and Washington DC20. 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 Arkansas3, 22 and Massachusetts23.

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 Rico24. Making Schools Work, a comprehensive school improvement effort for student career pathways, has been implemented in thousands of schools and includes career and technical education25.

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 students26. 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 state27.

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.

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.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) education programs to promote health equity.

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, DC: 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, DC: 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 - US Department of Education (US ED). Bridging the skills gap: Career and technical education in high school. September 2019.

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

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

22 AR-CTE - State of Arkansas (AR), Division of Workforce Services. Office of skills development for career and technical education (CTE) programs, Adult education, Arkansas rehabilitation services.

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

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

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

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

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

Date Last Updated