Choosing CTE: Post-Secondary Education Choices

Pam Sornson, JD

The expectation that every high school graduate should attend university is relatively new, only coming into popularity over the past forty years. However, today’s career and technical education programs (CTE) offer as much value, if not more, than many four-year university degrees. High school students exploring their future occupation and career options should look as closely at obtaining credentials and licenses in middle-skilled jobs as they do at the more theoretical classical university education. They’re almost certain to find a future that better suits their talents and interests and that pays as well or better, too.


Evolving Educational Goals

Before World War II, most high schoolers graduated into jobs or trades, with college or university available only to those families with the financial means pay for it. Most high schoolers studied reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also usually attained some form of vocational ‘work skills’ – CTE – training, too:

In the 20th Century’s first 60 years, Congress funded several bills that supported the expansion of high school-level vocational education to include agricultural, industry, and trade training.

Through the second half of that century, the funding expanded the number of ‘trades’ training opportunities available. Many were offered post-secondary education through a local trade school or college.

By the early 1970s, high schools were steering their students to programs that fed into either the four-year degree or a vocational education. This system worked well for most American high school graduates, who made up 74% of the nation’s middle-class workers in the 1970s.

The end of the war did signal a change in America’s attitude toward higher education, however. As soldiers returned home, Congress passed the Government Issue (GI) Bill to provide them with funding for re-training their skill base for use in civilian life. Suddenly, people from all backgrounds, not just privileged communities, had the means to attend university. Consequently, parents, counselors, and teachers began recommending a four-year university education for more of their students, a trend that gained enough traction that, by the 1980s, most high schools enrolled their students into programs that steered them towards a four-year degree. Attaining a university degree had become the expected outcome for a high school graduate.


Expectations vs. Realities

However, despite these high hopes, over the past three decades, many students have failed to achieve the university degree goal. Data suggests that it’s not a good reason to attend college simply because ‘you’re expected to.’ That driver is an external motivator that compels action based on other people’s preferences, not those of the individual student. Attending college to get away from a difficult life situation is not an appropriate motivator either. Research reveals that young learners who choose to attend a university due to external pressures (doing what’s expected of them or getting away from a difficult life situation) come to regret it:

As many as three in four (74%) of students ‘doing what was expected’ dropped out of or transferred away from their original school/program.

Over half the respondents avoiding a problematic situation struggled to complete their program within the standard four (or even five) years.

Another study tracked the nation’s 2012 first-year baccalaureate cohort group and reported that over 40% failed to complete any degree within six years of attendance. They are among America’s 36 million students in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s database identifying their education as ‘Some College, No Degree.’ The data indicate that persisting through the coursework and programs needed to attain a four-year university degree is more challenging when doing so isn’t the student’s personal goal.


Aligning Education with Motivation

Many educational scholars now suggest that high schoolers disregard inappropriate societal expectations and consider their personal preferences and other external factors instead when both making the decision to attend a post-secondary school and developing the strategy to pursue it:

Perhaps the most important decision point to consider is the student’s personal preference – what are they interested in and what do they like to do? Is there an occupation out there that pays them for doing work they enjoy doing anyway? Aligning educational choices with personal preferences and goals increases the likelihood that the learner will persist through school to achieve their desired credentialing and career.

Next in significance is the availability of occupations within their community. The COVID-19 pandemic did eliminate many career options, but it also added a wide variety of new career opportunities as companies evolved in response to that crisis. The emerging demand for technologically advanced skill sets opens career possibilities in virtually every industry.

Availability of training resources is also a significant factor in the decision to attend college. Finding a college or school close to home is critical for students who can’t afford to move to attend a post-secondary school.


Busting CTE Financial Fallacies

The decision to attend a CTE school or four-year university must also include evaluating potential costs and earning capacities. Many people believe that a CTE career pays less than a career derived from a four-year degree program. As a result, they pursue that option for its financial opportunity even when their educational capabilities aren’t well suited to the university setting.

Data reveals this belief is a myth, however. A recent study indicates that as many as half of 2018’s university graduates were earning under $28,000 annually, a significantly lower figure than most expect.

Other myths also cloud the decision-making process for high schoolers and their families:

Many, if not most, post-secondary students will take on student loans to pay for their education and must pay back those loans even if the borrower doesn’t complete their educational program. Too many students elect not to pursue additional training courses because they don’t want to assume this debt.

Worse, some students take on student loan debt that is significantly higher than the earning capacity of their preferred occupation. Even when they do graduate and find employment, they have difficulty paying off the loan debt, which continues to cloud their financial opportunities for years.

And many students don’t understand that they can work while studying or that many of today’s CTE training opportunities have work and earning opportunities built into the program. Work-based learning is becoming more critical to students as employers recognize the value of providing on-the-job skills while their future employees are still learning the basics.


The social and economic disruptions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic have opened new opportunities for new jobs and careers flowing trades and CTE training. While the four-year university degree remains an option for many of California’s high school students, exploring today’s CTE opportunities offers the best path to an enjoyable occupation that pays an excellent wage throughout a long and successful career.

Get the PULSE in your inbox!