January 24, 2024 6:00 am

Navigating Career Pathways: The Unseen Value of CTE Programs

Career and technical education (CTE) programs serve as a critical bridge for high school students, offering them the flexibility to pursue higher education, dive directly into the workforce with a competitive edge, or even explore and pivot away from career paths they find less aligned with their interests — saving them time and money while offering them boundless opportunities.

The Game of Life board game really made it seem like the choice between starting with college or starting with a career was the most important decision you could make. It was black or white — start with college and have a chance at a “good job” or start with career and have much fewer opportunities. (In reality, either option could lead to the coveted $100,000 salary… but don’t tell 8-year-old me that.)

While the board game’s ties to real life were flimsy, this fictitious dilemma brings up a real-world misconception: that after high school you could either go to college or start a low-skilled job. Luckily, career and technical education (CTE) courses add so many more choices for today’s graduates. CTE’s unique blend of practical learning, hands-on experience, and direct industry relevance equips students with the skills necessary to navigate the complexities of the modern workforce.

The focused nature of CTE

The essence of CTE lies in its ability to tailor education to specific career paths, providing a clear, direct line from classroom learning to real-world application. This is a sentiment echoed by educators deeply embedded in the field. Connie Craven, a dedicated CTE teacher with Imagine School Services, highlights the focused nature of CTE courses: “I enjoy teaching CTE classes because they are more specific to a field or career rather than just a generalization. This can help students really see if that is a pathway they would want to pursue, saving them time and money in the future.”

“This can help students really see if that is a pathway they would want to pursue, saving them time and money in the future.”

Connie Craven

CTE Teacher, Imagine School Services

Craven’s observation underscores a crucial benefit of CTE — its capacity to help students make informed decisions about their futures, potentially averting unnecessary educational expenses and detours. This pragmatic approach to learning is not just about imparting knowledge; it’s about fostering a sense of direction and purpose. In fact, research shows that the average high school graduation rate of CTE concentrators (students who take more than one CTE course in the same field) is 96%, as compared to the national rate of 85%.


High school graduation rate of CTE concentrators (students who take more than one CTE course in the same field)

Exploration and adaptability

CTE empowers students to explore a range of careers before making a significant commitment to a specific path. This exploration is invaluable, allowing students to discover what truly motivates them and what does not, thus saving time, money, and potential dissatisfaction in the long run. The adaptability and breadth of options available through CTE underscore its critical role in helping students carve out successful, fulfilling careers, whether that means further academic pursuits, immediate employment, or a completely new direction after gaining hands-on experience. Regardless of the path they choose, data shows that “eight years after their expected graduation date, students who focused on career and technical education (CTE) courses while in high school had higher median annual earnings than students who did not focus on CTE.”

Kathy Colquitt, CTE teacher with Imagine School Services, shares her journey through the CTE landscape, from her initial spark of interest in international relations prompted by a teaching opportunity, to the internships and coursework that solidified her career path. “The CTE pathway helped me define my career and pursue degrees in business and international business,” Colquitt reflects. Her story exemplifies the transformative power of CTE, illustrating how targeted educational experiences can shape a student’s academic and professional trajectory.

Preparing for tomorrow’s careers

CTE courses stand apart from traditional education models by offering immersive, applied learning experiences that bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application. Colquitt elaborates on the unique offerings of CTE, stating, “CTE courses provide students with the ability to apply what they have learned within traditional courses into an environment that helps them explore their interests and further develop research and critical thinking skills.” This emphasis on application, coupled with the integration of ethical considerations, prepares students for the realities of the workplace in a way that traditional education often cannot.

Through its focus on specialized skills, practical experience, and direct industry relevance, CTE not only prepares students for the jobs of today but empowers them to shape the careers of tomorrow. As we look to the future, the role of CTE in fostering innovation, driving economic growth, and enhancing workforce readiness will undoubtedly continue to grow, making it an essential element of our collective educational strategy. So, instead of choosing between “start with college” and “start with career,” graduates leave high school on the right path for them.

Help students ignite their passions and find their paths