CTE Explained

Pam Sornson, JD

Although technically it stands for “Career and Technical Education,” the acronym ‘CTE” could also stand for ‘Commit to Excellence’ as community colleges cut through the mixed messaging of this highly valuable education track. A quick history of the philosophy and development of technical (versus academic) education reveals how most of the world we live in was built by the masters of these ‘middle skills.’


The Early Years

The unique circumstances of the 20th Century launched the theory that a ‘university education’ was deemed both the best possible education AND became accessible to the masses. Before that, people who gained any kind of ‘higher education’ were typically of an elite class and had a decidedly religious perspective – America’s first universities focused on developing a ‘learned clergy.’ They included a seminary as well as a classroom for their students.

The vast majority of the population didn’t have social access or a spiritual bent in the first place. And most often, attending ‘college’ was not an option, anyway, when the family needed that extra laborer in the field. Instead, the ‘education’ received by ‘non-elite’ people came in the form of the work they did to survive – farming, carpentry, smithing, etc. This work provided the foundational assets needed to build communities, businesses, and communities and facilitated the broader labor force that generated the aggregate industrial successes of the 19th Century. The more fortunate workers were also sometimes able to sign on with trades masters as apprentices, where they learned the intricacies and artforms inherent in the mainly manual work. These apprenticeship arrangements transformed over time into ‘vocational training’ and provided the impetus for the ‘career and technical education’ track as an alternate option to the four-year university.



Vocational Training as a Public Investment

In 1917, the U.S. federal government passed the National Vocational Education Act, which provided the first federal funding to the States for trade, industrial, agriculture, and home-making education programs. Over time, the Act and the volume of investments rose, adding more subjects to the vocational training roster:

Funds for teaching and marketing occupations were added in 1936.

Agricultural investments grew in 1946, adding support for the Future Farmers of America (for white Americans) and the New Farmers of America (for black Americans).

In 1956, funds for practical nursing and fishery operations were added.


As the subjects covered by federal vocational funding grew, the financing and support grew for the students, teachers, and schools that participated in the lessons.

In 1963, vocational training expanded its eligible student base by adding “persons of all ages in all communities.”

That year, the federal government also changed its allocation strategy to provide funding to individual states based on their student population numbers, which now also included academically and economically disadvantaged students as well as disabled students.

In 1968, Congress amended the legislation to include ‘post-secondary’ learners, and in 1976, women and girls were (finally) mandated to have equal access to vocational training opportunities.


Perhaps the most significant CTE and vocational training changes came in 1984 when Congress aggregated the collective vocational legislation initiatives into the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act. Since its inception, the government has amended the ‘Perkins’ Act four times (II, III, IV, and V) to embrace ever-widening elements of America’s educational landscape.

In 1990, the name of the Act (version II) was amended by adding ‘Applied Technology Education’ to its title. That amendment also included secondary and post-secondary alignment, academic integration with CTE programs, and business partnerships as added values to the CTE experience. It also noted that accountability was a critical element of the success of any CTE program.

The Act doubled down on its integration and alignment focus in 1998 (version III) by allowing states to control 85% of its funding for state-based initiatives, and

In 2006, the Act’s name changed again (version IV) to reflect its current focus, the “Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.” The revision added new available subject matters, re-envisioned its perspective on CTE in general, and supplied $1.3 billion to support Basic State Grants and ‘Tech Prep Education’ funding. (Tech Prep funding was discontinued in 2011.)


In 2018, Congress renamed it again, and it is now the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). The new version reiterates all the values of the past while adding significant parameters for the future:

It requires ‘data-driven decision-making’ based on appropriate assessments and accountabilities;

It enhances supports to special populations, and

It encourages innovation in the CTE strata of educational opportunities.

Perkins V became operable in this 20-21 academic year.



Addressing the ‘CTE’ Stigma

Despite these investments and insightful developments in CTE strategies, CTE courses and programs continue to lack the respect enjoyed by four-year colleges and universities. In most part, that ‘stigma’ grew out of the mid-20th Century’s elitist mentality that asserted only a four-year degree could provide the best opportunity to find the best-paying job. Schools offering two-year and technical programs were considered second class and second choice. They were looked on favorably only by students who would be content earning less than their four-year university-bound cohorts.

One reason for the misconception that a ‘college degree’ was more valuable than a CTE program is the fact that the 1944 GI Bill essentially said so. Returning World War II heroes were able to successfully ‘reenter society’ after first receiving a four-year academic degree. The free college opportunity would level the playing field between elitists (that 5% of the then-population that would certainly go to college) and the majority of the returning soldiers (the 95% who would not attend college otherwise).

The promotion of an academic education over a technical one persisted as governments across the country asserted its superiority. By the 1980s, society had absorbed the shift in the occupational perception of professions being more valuable occupations for everyone over technical, managerial, and clerical work.

That shift was based on economic theory, however, not pragmatism: academic work paid better than technical work, so everyone should pursue a profession even if it doesn’t fit their predisposition or aptitude. So young people were encouraged to attend the higher-level college regardless of their innate abilities, talents, or skills, and even if they didn’t want to participate in the first place.

Unfortunately, that perception (and its consequence of millions of reluctant or ill-suited college attendees) has skewed America’s educational system for decades:

Even with all the accommodations available to ease the four-year university process, upwards of 40% of all undergraduates drop out of college, and 30% of first-year college students leave before the end of their sophomore year.

More than 30% of those undergraduates are also the first in their families to attend university, meaning they have no family history or culture supporting college success.

In 2019, less than half of America’s 25-to-35-year-olds had acquired any credentials beyond high school. So even if they had tried college, they didn’t finish, nor did they complete any other type of post-high school education.

And even while the push towards four-year schools maintained high popularity, millions of highly paid trade jobs remained unfilled.

The overall consequence is that America is now overflowing with young people seeking a better future (but without the resources they need to achieve it), and thousands of trade positions that can’t be filled. The new response to that challenge: offer additional training and skills-attainment opportunities across a wider swath of occupations so that more people can attend a school that suits them and find work in a job or occupation they enjoy.



Opening a New World for Workers

Since 2010, California has been pursuing that very goal by investing heavily in the CTE and advanced technical training programs in its community colleges. Data reveals why those investments are both smart and prescient:

Because they typically cost less than a four-year school, community colleges are more cost-effective and can attract a broader student base.

Because the commitment to achieve a certificate or associate degree requires fewer time and economic resources to obtain, community colleges also attract older learners, those with lower incomes, or are the first in their family to attend college. For many, community college is their only opportunity to pursue any form of advanced education or skills training program.

The ‘middle skills’ training offered through most community college programs leads to significant and well-paying jobs, allowing more students to attain the lifestyle they want without taking on the excess cost of pursuing a four-year university degree.

Those programs are also (usually) more flexible than the academic tracks, allowing the schools to adapt to accommodate the changing needs of local and regional industries.

The rising interest and investments into community colleges as workforce pipelines are seeing success. Between the 02-03 and the 12-13 academic years, the number of CTE graduates with certifications or associates degrees grew by 54%. The number of bachelor’s degree graduates rose by only 36% in the same time frame.


And for students, the rewards are even better:

Short-term certifications and diplomas (6 – 17 credits) raise the learners earning capacity by 14%.

Longer-term associates degrees (60 or more credits) increase earning capacities by 45%.


CTE Moving Forward

Of course, the relative earning capacity changes based on the education received and the nature of the work. The point is that California’s community college CTE training is providing more people with job opportunities tailored to their skills and abilities than ever before.

Today’s truth is that industries are clamoring for well-trained and educated workers who provide the critical middle skillsets they need. The PCC EWD Future of Work Conference is an excellent opportunity to learn more about how Pasadena City College is responding to that demand.


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