What is Career and Technical Education (CTE)?

Written ByJustin Boyle

Career and Technical Education Definition: If you're a potential student and you've been hearing a lot about something called CTE on your search for the right school, you're not alone. CTE stands for career technical education, or career and technical education, and it's having a big impact on college access and workforce success throughout the country.

The benefits of CTE programs can be seen at both the high school and college levels. High school students who enroll in CTE education programs graduate at a rate of 93 percent, compared to the national rate of just 80 percent for students earning traditional high school diplomas. College students who earn associate degrees in CTE career pathways can out-earn workers with bachelor's degrees by more than $10,000 per year.

One of the biggest markers of the importance of career and technical education is that the U.S. is facing a skilled labor shortage to a degree it's never seen before. Thanks in part to a longtime focus on the need for academic college study after high school, there are nearly a million more jobs on the labor market than there are qualified candidates to fill them.

Programs at CTE colleges all across America can help you be a part of a workforce surge that closes that skills gap. Read on to learn about how campus-based and online trade and vocational school programs work to provide students with the training they need.

What are CTE career clusters?

Careers that fall under career and technical education can usually be found in any one of these following categories, or "clusters" as they are known at the federal level:

  • Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
  • Architecture & Construction
  • Arts, A/V Technology & Communications
  • Business Management & Administration
  • Education & Training
  • Finance
  • Government & Public Administration
  • Health Science
  • Hospitality & Tourism
  • Human Services
  • Information Technology
  • Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  • Manufacturing
  • Marketing
  • Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

CTE Careers and Vocational Training

You might be asking, what good is CTE in education, or in planning for a future career? Here's a quick list of advantages that career and technical education programs have over a traditional university bachelor's degree:

  • Shorter time to completion. The standard bachelor's degree takes around four years of full-time college study to complete. Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degrees available at CTE colleges -- the most comprehensive technical credential -- take just two full-time years to complete, and a wide range of career certificates can be earned in less than a year.
  • Lower average cost. The national average cost of a year of tuition and fees at a four-year university was over $9,000 in 2019, but the average yearly cost of CTE programs is much lower. Students paid an average of less than $3,300 for a full year of study at two-year schools across the country. On top of that, the shorter program lengths can lead to a much lower overall cost from enrollment to graduation.
  • Flexible schedules. Administrators at career and technical schools understand that their students might have responsibilities to work or family that prevent them from keeping to the regular weekday schedule of a traditional university degree. Weekend or evening courses are often available, and some online trade and vocational school programs can allow you to earn a degree on the internet, entirely on your own time.

The nationally accepted set of career and technical education standards makes it possible for CTE education programs to align their training closely with the needs of skilled positions in the workforce. Check out these examples of job fields that align with CTE career pathways:

  • Dental hygienist. These essential healthcare professionals earn one of the highest mean annual salaries available to CTE students fresh out of school.
  • Computer network support specialist. Most companies need a well-run computer network to get their work done, which means high demand for well-trained support personnel.
  • Massage therapist. A move toward whole-body wellness and preventative medicine has translated to projected job gains of more than 22 percent for massage therapists.
  • HVAC/R technician. Climate control has become a necessity in modern life, and knowing how to install and service these systems can help you land a job in a stable industry.
  • Aircraft mechanic. Air travel safety may be more important than ever, and only skilled aircraft mechanics can help planes and helicopters stay airworthy.

Those are just a few of the careers that career and technical education programs can prepare you for. Check out our list of the best vocational and trade school careers to learn more.

Career and Technical Education Initiatives

The U.S. Congress sets aside more than $7 million each year to support initiatives related to career and technical education. Here's a list of a few active CTE initiatives as of 2020:

State governments often fund their own initiatives to help CTE colleges provide training that best suits the needs of the regional workforce. Here's a sample of some initiatives at the state level:

  • Oregon provides CTE Revitalization Grants to schools to help them keep students engaged, increase program completion and contribute to local economic development.
  • Utah funds more than 100 CTE scholarships and other financial aid awards at community and technical colleges in the state, worth as much as a full tuition award at some schools.
  • Texas promotes CTE student engagement through its Pathways initiative, which seeks to ensure that career and technical education programs align with job market demand.
  • Georgia offers registered apprenticeship programs in manufacturing at some of its technical colleges, allowing students to earn a part-time salary while they learn their trade.
  • California maintains the Strong Workforce Program, a nearly $250 million investment designed to improve CTE program quality and increase student enrollment.

CTE Resources