Technical education: A promising path to college and career readiness

Male teacher and student looking at a desktop computer monitor

There’s a good reason why education reformers have become obsessed with getting many more low-income high school students “to and through” four-year college degrees: They are the closest things we have to a guarantee of propelling poor kids into the middle class. 

Number of students able to rise out of poverty

But as Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute has argued, while a college degree has a big payoff, it also comes with a low probability. Among children from the bottom third of the income distribution, Kelly estimates, just 14 percent will complete four-year degrees. Even if we could double that proportion, there would still be a large majority of poor and working class kids needing another path to the middle class.

Thankfully, there is such a route: High-quality career and technical education, often powered by digital learning and culminating in industry-recognized post-secondary credentials. But, as Tamar Jacoby demonstrates, we’re going to need to rethink our approach to high school if we want many more students to be able to take this promising path.

Right now, we mostly shuffle kids through so-called college preparation courses. According to the most recent data, 81 percent of high school students are taking an academic route; only 19 percent are “concentrating” in CTE (which means earning at least three credits in a single CTE program area).

It’s not working. About 20 percent of teenagers don’t graduate from high school at all, including 28 percent of economically disadvantaged students. Of those who do graduate, about two-thirds matriculate to some form of college, including about half of low-income students. But a majority of students entering community colleges—and 20 percent of those going into four-year colleges—land in remedial (“developmental”) education because they are not academically prepared for college. Two-thirds of low-income students at community colleges start in remedial classes that earn them no degree credit.

Here’s where things really fall apart: Almost two-thirds of community college students who start in remedial courses won’t complete a credential within six years; 40 percent don’t ever get beyond the remedial stage. It’s not hard to understand why. Our K–12 system, especially the high school level, is simply not getting most of these students ready for success.

All too often, then, the outcome of our current strategy—what you might call “bachelor’s degree or bust”—is that a young person drops out of college at age twenty with no post-secondary credential, no skills, and no work experience, but a fair amount of debt. That’s a terrible way to begin adult life, and it’s even worse if the young adult aims to escape poverty.

A better approach for many young people would be to develop coherent pathways, beginning in high school, into authentic technical education options at the post-secondary level. Such efforts show great promise in better engaging students, helping them succeed academically, boosting their college-going and college completion rates, and brightening their career prospects. These arrangements not only provide access to workplaces where students can apply their skills, they also offer seamless transitions into post-secondary education, apprenticeships, and employer-provided learning opportunities. By age twenty, graduates of such programs have academic credentials, technical credentials, and work experience—and, usually, well-paying jobs.

The ability of earning a higher salary through educational attainment

To make this option a reality, however, local communities and education leaders will have to overcome the painful legacy of tracking. It simply doesn’t work to wait until kids are eighteen for them to choose an academic path that leads to four-year college or a technical path that leads to an associate’s degree, certification, or license. Generic high school experiences are not preparing low-income students to thrive in either academic or technical routes after they receive their diplomas. The system shouldn’t choose a student’s path—but there should be a choice. And as innovative programs like Career Path High in Utah are beginning to show, digital learning can multiply and deepen those choices for students.

While our education system alone cannot solve the stubborn, tragic problem of persistent poverty and the growing gaps between working-class and college-educated Americans, there’s much it can do for the children entrusted to it. But first we have to change the way we think about the problem and its possible solutions. High quality Career and Technical Education is clearly one of them.

I’ll be exploring this critical topic with practitioners from the frontlines on a special webinar called Accelerating College & Career Readiness in Your High School: Five Ways to Use Digital Learning to Prime Your Students’ Futures this April 26 at Noon ET.  I hope you’ll join the conversation!


About the Author

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and editor of Education for Upward Mobility.