Career and Technical Education Explained
Career and Technical Education Explained

By: Christina Fernandez, Grants Development Associate – Higher Ed

Approximately 12.3 million students across the US are enrolled in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. CTE programs vary by institution, but the overarching purpose is to provide students with the academic and technical skills needed to succeed in an emerging career field. The Department of Education established a list of 16 career fields, referred to as career clusters, representing up to 79 different career pathways. These different pathways allow students to explore a career cluster of interest while also learning employability skills that complement their academic studies. CTE evolved from vocational education, which focused on an isolated elective with specific job training associated, to be more academically rigorous and integrated within other programs of study in comprehensive high schools, technical centers, and community colleges. Read on for a description of the common elements that make CTE programs successful, a high level overview of the funding landscape, and to learn how CTE programs function within different institutional settings.

Secondary vs Postsecondary CTE programs

CTE programming looks different at every institution, especially between secondary and post-secondary institutions.

At the secondary level, CTE can have a structural or instructional approach to how courses are delivered. Some common approaches include a whole school delivery model (structural), school-within-a-school (instructional/instructional), and pullout (instructional). For example, a technical high school implements CTE through a whole school delivery model in which all students are enrolled in a program of study and work-based learning is explicitly integrated throughout the curriculum. A career academy takes on a more “school-within-a-school” model, focusing on a career theme and delivered through a combination of academic and CTE curriculum to a smaller learning community housed in a large comprehensive high school. Lastly, the pullout model refers to technical centers that serve multiple school districts and students can attend part-time in addition to their regular high school credits.

Similarly, community colleges typically offer dual credit courses in which students can earn college credit while completing their high school diploma. Dual credit courses require a partnership between a school district and a community college and can be taken on campus, online, or at the high school. At the postsecondary level, CTE programs are mainly offered at community college and students can enroll in a certificate, degree, or non-degree CTE program. Though community colleges often partner with high schools to provide CTE programs, they also provide a pathway to employment through stackable credentials for adult learners (returning adults, veterans, and workers wanting to update their skills). Common examples of CTE fields at the community college level include nursing and law enforcement.


Common elements of CTE programs:

One of the most common elements to a CTE program is work-based learning (WBL). Work-based learning is an umbrella term for the range of hands-on learning activities it supports. Short term WBL activities include career fairs, college campus visits, job shadowing and/or classroom presentations by employers. Longer term WBL activities include experiences like internships, pre-apprenticeships, and cooperative education which combines classroom-based education with practical work experience. 

Another common element of a CTE program is offering courses/credentials that are aligned with industry needs. Remember, there are 79 different career pathways, various levels of education required for each, and thousands of credentialing organizations. For grant-seekers to have a successful CTE program, partnerships with employers are critical as they can provide industry expertise when developing curriculum. Employers can also provide real world examples of challenges occurring in the industry, pushing students to think critically and have a comprehensive understanding of what their career will entail. Industry-recognized courses/credentials not only help validate that students will be entering the workforce with the appropriate skills to be successful but also ensure that courses align with the needs of the market.

The last common element to a successful CTE program is Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSOs). There are 11 federally designated CTSOs, which support secondary and postsecondary students in CTE pathways. CTSOs cater to the different career clusters and offer additional opportunities outside of the classroom to help students grow and further develop their skills. Schools that participate in a CTSO have more capacity to participate in national competitions in various industries, provide leadership development and offer additional mentoring services to ensure their students complete the CTE pathway and successfully transition into the workforce


Funding For CTE

The largest support for CTE programming is the federal government. The federal government invests around $1.3 billion annually through t​he Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). Funding is allocated to states, who then distribute to local education agencies (LEAs) for secondary institutions and/or to postsecondary institutions, mainly community colleges. States are given discretion on how to split funds between the two institutions. Generally, funding through this program supports curriculum and professional development, purchasing equipment, providing students with career guidance, and ensuring access to CTE for youth with disabilities and other special populations. In addition, states are allowed to reserve up to 15 percent of their allocation to use towards their most pressing CTE needs. Many states use their reserve funds to host competitive grant competitions, while others use it to provide extra funding to help struggling programs improve.

Outside of federal funding, states are also making large investments in support of  CTE programming.  For example, Oklahoma is using their lottery trust fund to support equipment purchases and improve instructional training in K-12 districts through their Education Lottery Trust Fund Technology Grant.  States like Wisconsin are choosing to fund specific industry training programs, like advanced manufacturing, to address their skilled worker shortage through their Advanced Manufacturing Technical Education Equipment Grant.   Other sources of funding for CTE can come from labor and workforce agencies (Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants), the National Science Foundation (Advanced Technological Education), and regional foundations (ECMC Foundation grants).


As CTE continues to become an integral part of our education system, it is important to understand the various components that are required to make it successful.  In the classroom students will need to be challenged and well-trained to be prepared for the workforce. Outside the classroom, students will need to be mentored and supported to help maintain focus and motivation for their new career.