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Student in shop utilizing technical skills

Getting In, Getting Through and Getting Out: Understanding the Career and Technical Education Pipeline

February 10, 2020

A recent survey by found that 90 percent of Americans believe career and technical education (CTE) should be offered in every high school. Many CTE jobs offer competitive wages, with programs representing a practical route from school to the workforce, and one that is shorter and less expensive than the four-year alternative.

A large proportion of today’s careers require technical skills aimed at mastering various technologies, physical tools, and advanced equipment. These skills are delivered through career and technical education, but not necessarily a four-year degree. While CTE is often delivered in secondary or postsecondary environments, the most common credentials include professional licensure or certifications through technical colleges, or associate degrees through community colleges. The field of CTE is made up of 16 career clusters that include business, health sciences, IT, manufacturing, agriculture, and hospitality, with each having its own pipeline or pathway to which students enter, become engaged in, and transition out of their education and join their respective work field. Understanding what makes a student pursue a CTE path, what factors are associated with successfully obtaining a degree or a CTE job, and whether CTE pathways are effective in remediating economic gaps between demographic groups is crucial to realize the full potential of CTE careers.

Getting In: Entering the CTE pipeline. One way we are able to better understand how students decide to and enter the CTE pipeline is to evaluate patterns in their course taking. Through the use of Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002; data, we’ve found that 49 percent of high school students are classified as CTE concentrators (defined as students with three or more credits in one single career cluster), while another 44 percent are classified as explorers (students with three total CTE credits spread out across the 16 career clusters). Despite the interest in CTE courses, we found that approximately 58 percent of students enroll in a four-year institution while 38 percent enroll in two-year institutions. This is significant because CTE credentials are more likely to be earned through two-year institutions (i.e., community colleges) than four-year institutions. And although community colleges offer CTE certificates, many students enroll with the intention to transfer to a four-year institution and not to obtain a CTE certificate.

With a clear understanding of the decision-making and academic experiences of students within the CTE pipeline, we are able to glean more information as to the effectiveness of these careers for all.

Margarita Olivera-Aguilar, Associate Research Scientist at ETS

Getting Through and Getting Out: CTE Academic Experiences. In order to understand what the experience is like for students in the midst of their CTE education, we must better understand their involvement based on their field of study and academic performance. Among high school students two of the most popular CTE clusters are Health Science and Manufacturing, according to the ELS:2002. This data also tells us that while students are committed to their high school CTE courses, approximately 49 percent of CTE concentrators and explorers throughout the 16 career clusters are also classified as four-year college bound students. Interestingly, while approximately 65 percent of the Health Science concentrators and 43 percent of the Manufacturing concentrators indicate they aspire to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, eight years after their senior year in high school only 33 percent and 18 percent, respectively, obtained such degree.

Getting On: CTE Workplace Experiences. Workplace experiences in CTE fields can be evaluated in many ways, one of which is to evaluate the demographic makeup of job holders. To understand who progresses through CTE clusters and fields into workplace environments, gives us important information about how these fields are attracting and retaining candidates. Using data from ELS: 2002, our ETS Research & Development colleagues Harrison Kell, Katrina Roohr and Daniel Fishtein (PDF) found that approximately 21 percent of students ended up in a CTE-related job. They also found that female, African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian workers tend to be underrepresented across CTE clusters, whereas people with disabilities/impairments and those from families with incomes at or below national average are overrepresented across CTE clusters. These results suggest that although CTE has created many job opportunities, there are still gaps for women and several racial/ethnic minority groups.

While there are many benefits to pursuing CTE, data suggests that the advantages of CTE have not been clearly communicated to high school students, counselors and parents, as students still tend to prefer the most traditional path offered by four-year institutions. With a clear understanding of the decision-making and academic experiences of students within the CTE pipeline, we are able to glean more information as to the effectiveness of these careers for all. Knowing how those who pursue CTE careers are progressing through the pipeline will open more doors for students to continue to pursue technical careers.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002)

Margarita Olivera-Aguilar is an associate research scientist in Research & Development at ETS. She holds a PhD in quantitative psychology from Arizona State University, specializing in measurement invariance and structural equation modeling. Margarita’s research regarding CTE is focused on the decisions that drive students to pursue a CTE path and the factors that predict success in CTE academic and job outcomes. She is also conducting research around intercultural competency training.