Throughout the past four decades, career and technical education (CTE) programs have provided students with real world, application-driven instructional experiences that supported the transition to a career. Even with the recent shifts in emphasis toward higher academic standards and accountability, CTE programs in the United States maintain a significant presence in both secondary and postsecondary student preparation programs. All but 12 percent of American high schools offer at least one occupational preparation program, with the average high school offering at least 10 programs leading to a career. Fifty-five percent of all high school students complete three years or more of CTE courses. At the postsecondary level, more than 12 million undergraduates are enrolled in a CTE-related sub-baccalaureate credential, certificate, or associate’s degree.
This coverage is good news, given that research indicates that students who enroll in a high quality program with a sufficient level of “intensity” experience positive outcomes. A report on state use of federal CTE funding shows that students who complete three years or more of CTE courses have an average high school graduation rate of over 90 percent , well above the national graduation rate of 72 percent. The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education reports that students who entered high school at a normal or younger age were less likely to drop out of high school as they increased their CTE course load. To make a significant impact, they needed to take about one CTE course for every two academic courses. The reports suggest that this mix of CTE and academic courses gives students varied experiences that help them identify a personal pathway for success, and thus lowers the dropout rate.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that the high-risk students who enrolled in a quality CTE program are eight to ten times less likely to drop out of the 11th and 12th grades than if they enrolled in a general program. The same study indicated that a quality CTE program could have a major impact on a school’s overall dropout rate, reducing it by as much as six percent. CTE students were also shown to be less likely to fail a course or to be absent than general track students. 
Another study identified five potential benefits of CTE to help address the school dropout problem. These benefits include: enhancement of students’ motivation and academic achievement, increased personal and social competence related to work in general, a broad understanding of an occupation or industry, career exploration and planning, and acquisition of knowledge or skills related to employment in particular occupations or more generic work competencies.
These outcomes mirror many visions of what it means to be college and career ready. Given this record, CTE is a good candidate for inclusion in local, regional, and state plans to improve outcomes for all students.
Hans K. Meeder is President of the Meeder Consulting Group, LLC, and has previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education in the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education.
Matt Fleck is a consultant with Meeder Consulting Group and former Director of Indiana State CTE.