Press FAQs on Career and Technical Education

Q: I have heard the terms “vocational education” and “career and technical education” (CTE) used. What is the history of these terms? Which one should I use?

The term “career and technical education,” or “CTE,” evolved from “vocational education,” which traces its roots back more than 125 years and originally referred to specific and often terminal programs preparing people for work in areas such as agriculture, homemaking, and trade and industrial education. Today, CTE provides the skills that learners need in order to be prepared for college, careers and lifelong learning, and is much broader than it used to be. Students can take courses in 16 different Career Clusters® that include over 79 different career pathways and hundreds of different careers requiring varying levels of education. To reflect the changing nature of this type of education, we no longer use the term “vocational education,” but instead use “career and technical education (CTE).” CTE gives relevance and context to learning by emphasizing real-world skills and rigorous, yet practical knowledge anchored within a selected career focus. In 1998, ACTE changed its name to reflect the shift from job-specific vocationalism to education that can prepare all youth and adults for long-term career success. The vast majority of states followed suit as a way to better describe today’s education system. In 2006, Congress responded by replacing “vocational” with “CTE” in the major federal law impacting secondary and postsecondary CTE programs, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. Nearly all other federal legislation now refers to CTE as well.

Q: Where are CTE programs offered at the secondary level?

CTE is delivered in a variety of ways and can differ by state and locality. At the secondary level, CTE programs can be delivered in comprehensive high schools, magnet schools, area CTE centers, early college high schools and other unique institutions.

Q: How many students participate in secondary CTE programs nationwide?

During the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 8.3 million high school students participated in CTE programs. Students who concentrated in CTE during that year – completing at least two courses in a CTE pathway – were most likely to be enrolled in Health Science; Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Business Management, Administration and Arts; and A/V Technology and Communications programs. For additional information on enrollment data, including a breakdown by state and Career Cluster®, visit the Department of Education’s Perkins Data Explorer.

Q: Where can learners find postsecondary CTE programs?

At the postsecondary level, CTE is most often delivered through public community or technical colleges, area CTE centers and some four-year universities, depending on the state model. Some people refer to institutions that offer postsecondary CTE programs as “trade schools.” Historically, a trade school trained workers for one specific, usually terminal job or trade. In more recent years, trade schools have existed as for-profit institutions training workers for a single career, as opposed to broader CTE offerings at other postsecondary institutions that lead to a wide variety of career opportunities and further education, and they often lack the credit portability of typical postsecondary CTE programs. Community and technical colleges typically offer multiple CTE programs on one campus, and can be spread out among multiple campuses.

Q: What about enrollment in postsecondary CTE?

At the postsecondary level, nearly 3.5 million students participated in a CTE program during 2020-21. The top four Career Clusters® among postsecondary CTE concentrators were Health Science; Business Management and Administration; Law, Public Safety, Corrections and Security; and Information Technology. For additional information on enrollment data, including a breakdown by state and Career Cluster®, visit the Department of Education’s Perkins Data Explorer.

Q: What kinds of careers are available to CTE students?

Careers that touch virtually every sector of the economy are available to students who pursue CTE. From livestock geneticist to nuclear engineer, CTE’s system of 16 Career Clusters® and dozens of career pathways help guide students to the career of their dreams. The Career Clusters® group occupations and industries, and they serve to represent the knowledge and skills demanded by those industries. Adopted in nearly every state, they are also an organizing tool for curriculum design, career counseling and guidance. As our economy changes and new investments are made in key industries such as semiconductor manufacturing, infrastructure and more, career options will be plentiful for students participating in CTE programs. Learn more about different industry sectors and how CTE prepares students for a variety of careers through our Sector Sheets, containing information on employer needs and how CTE programs meet those needs.

Q: What kinds of credentials can students earn through CTE programs?

CTE programs can result in the attainment of a variety of credentials that are awarded to recognize a student’s skills. They can be targeted to specific job skills or be broader in scope Credentials can include certificates awarded after completion of short-term CTE programs that take less than two years to complete, degrees at the associate level and beyond, occupational licenses, industry certifications and more. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Work, certificates are the fastest-growing credential, and the National Bureau of Economic Researchers found that students receive a positive return on investment for completing an associate degree, compared to those who did not obtain a credential. In addition, sub-baccalaureate CTE degrees, diplomas and certificates generated positive returns on investments, with some variability by program of study.

Q: What are some of the benefits that students derive from CTE coursework?

CTE is proven increase high school graduation rates, and increase students’ earning potential. High school students involved in CTE are more engaged and typically go on to postsecondary education. Postsecondary CTE prepares learners for in-demand careers and allows them to take on less debt while developing essential academic, technical and employability skills and earning credentials. For more information, visit the What is CTE? and CTE Works! fact pages.

Q: What about benefits for employers and the economy?

Approximately 74% of employers believe a skills gap persists in the United States. CTE prepares students with the cutting-edge skills employers need and helps to provide the workforce for occupations in fields facing the greatest labor shortages, such as operations and logistics, manufacturing and production, information technology and consumer support. Through successful partnerships with CTE programs, employers gain a pipeline of talent that is prepared to keep their industry on track.

Q: I thought CTE was only for students who aren’t pursuing a four-year degree. Is this true?

CTE is for ALL students! In fact, CTE high school students are college and career ready – 96% graduate high school and most enroll directly in postsecondary education. Many CTE pathways lead to careers that require a bachelor’s degree or beyond, such as those in engineering, teaching, medical fields, business management and more.

Q: Are good-paying careers available through CTE?

There are about 30 million “good jobs” that pay a median of $55,000 or more and require below a bachelor’s degree. CTE associate degrees can pay $10,000 more per year than associate degrees in other fields – and can even pay more than bachelor’s degrees – while limiting student debt. Postsecondary CTE offers associate degrees, postsecondary certificates, industry credentials and more that qualify individuals for these good jobs.

Q: Which industries are in-demand for CTE students?

Across numerous traditional and emerging industries, employers report challenges finding workers with the skills that they need to fill available jobs. More than half of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations require education below a bachelor’s degree, as do half of all STEM jobs. Health care occupations are projected to grow 15% by 2029, adding more than 2 million new jobs. Many of the almost 17.2 million workers employed in infrastructure jobs are nearing retirement. 89% of manufacturers face talent shortages, with 60% reporting a high or very high impact on productivity. These shortages also extend to fields like education, construction trades and more.

Q: Where do CTE programs obtain funding?

The majority of funding for the operation of CTE programs comes from state and local funding sources. However, those funds are supplemented by the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides roughly $1.4B in funding annually to secondary and postsecondary programs in all 50 states and U.S. territories, to ensure all students have access to high-quality CTE programs. It was reauthorized most recently in 2018, and the law is now colloquially referred to as “Perkins V.” The Perkins Basic State Grant program (Title I of Perkins V) is the principal source of dedicated federal funding for CTE, which helps build the capacity of institutions to serve millions of students nationwide. You can find ACTE’s policy agenda, which describes more about the various funding streams that provide funds to CTE programs, legislative asks and more here.

Q: What are some challenges that the CTE community is faced with, and how are they addressing those challenges?

  • Chronic federal underfunding of CTE:
    • In FY 2023, Perkins was funded at just $1.44 billion, which remains hundreds of millions below the inflation-adjusted level from 20 years ago (FY 2004). More robust Perkins funding is critical to providing high-quality CTE programs for students across the nation. Increasing Perkins funding will help provide critical programs and supports to students in every state and congressional district, such as career counseling, dual enrollment, work-based learning, industry-recognized credentials and more. Perkins funding is used to provide equipment and materials for CTE programs, recruit and retain faculty, and help develop partnerships with business and industry. It is essential for the delivery of high-quality CTE programs.
  • Inclusion, access, equity and diversity for all learners is a key mission for CTE practitioners. We recognize that there are gaps in access to CTE programs and success in programs for different groups of students, and are working to address these gaps.
  • Perkins V requires support for special populations, including:
    • Individuals with disabilities
    • Individuals from economically disadvantaged families, including low-income youth and adults.
    • Individuals preparing for nontraditional fields.
    • Single parents, including single pregnant women.
    • Out-of-workforce individuals
    • English learners
    • Homeless individuals
    • Youth who are in, or have aged out of, the foster care system.
    • Youth with a parent who is a member of the armed forces and is on active duty.
  • Perkins V also requires data disaggregation in order to identify underenrolled groups and ways to support access to CTE programs for these groups, as well as actionable strategies to close performance gaps in CTE programs identified by participant data.
  • As CTE expands to include dozens of in-demand career pathways and responds to the changing nature of the 21st-century workforce, it is critical that all learners, especially historically marginalized student groups, can access CTE programs that help them pursue a career that they are passionate about.
  • Teacher pipeline: Institutions around the country are reporting shortages of qualified CTE teachers across many subjects and across secondary and postsecondary education. While the teacher shortage is impacting all fields, the issues are exacerbated in CTE because CTE teachers can make substantially more money working directly in industry. To alleviate shortages and improve the CTE teacher pipeline, ACTE is working with Congress to urge passage of legislation that improves recruitment and retention by making teaching a more financially attractive career to industry professionals, and increases access to high-quality CTE teacher preparation and professional development.
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