What do sports medicine, cybersecurity, global marketing and environmental conservation all have in common? Thanks to today’s career and technical education (CTE), students have the opportunity to pursue classes in all these fields, along with dozens of others. However, CTE, previously known as “vocational education,” was not always this expansive. On the 100-year anniversary of the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act, the federal government’s first investment in secondary CTE, it’s important to acknowledge the transformation of CTE and the ever-expanding opportunities for today’s students.
Signed into law 100 years ago today, the Smith-Hughes Act demonstrated the federal government’s commitment to education that prepares students for career success. The law was instrumental in leading to the landmark Vocational Education Act of 1963 (later re-named after former Rep. Carl D. Perkins), which has continued to evolve to support state and local CTE efforts.
One hundred years ago, secondary “vocational education” was centered on agriculture, homemaking, and trade and industrial education to prepare students to enter the workforce immediately. Today, however, as the labor market has changed, more than 75 percent of all secondary CTE investors pursue some type of postsecondary education, many in exciting fields like biomedicine, computer programming and robotics. CTE is fueling the talent pipeline that drives 21st century American growth and competitiveness by engaging millions of students in a rigorous academic and technical curriculum.
In fact, 94 percent of all high school students today enroll in at least one CTE class. Students take these classes for a variety of reasons, including to explore a career interest, to earn college credit, or to earn industry recognized credentials while still in high school. The result? Students who take CTE classes are more likely to graduate from high school and meet college and career readiness goals, all while engaging in hands-on, practical learning.
Still, the stigma lingers that CTE is only for those who cannot or do not wish to pursue four-year college degrees. To the contrary, CTE provides a multitude of paths for students, and many secondary CTE students do go on to pursue bachelor’s degrees and higher in engineering, health care, business and many other career fields.
CTE also prepares students for career success through community colleges and other short-term training programs. According to the Department of Labor, the top three fastest-growing occupations all have median salaries greater than $50,000 per year, and all require credentials acquired through postsecondary CTE. What’s more, half of all STEM jobs are open to those with two-year degrees, and millions of other in-demand job openings over the next several years will be available to CTE graduates. The American economy truly is ripe with opportunity for today’s CTE students, both for those who choose to pursue four-year degrees and those who do not.
As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act, Congress is also preparing to address reauthorization of the current federal investment in CTE, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act (Perkins). Unfortunately, however, annual Perkins funding today for states and locales is $200 million less than what it was in FY 2004, a decline of more than 30 percent when adjusted for inflation. These cuts persist even as millions of students continue to enroll in CTE classes and waiting lists for programs abound.
But there is good news; CTE is a bipartisan issue. In recent written testimony, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos agreed with Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that reauthorizing Perkins is an “important priority.” Likewise, the Senate recently approved a resolution recognizing the value of CTE introduced by a bipartisan coalition of senators.
To honor the centennial of the Smith-Hughes Act and to mark February as CTE Month, schools across the country are celebrating their accomplishments and raising awareness around the benefits of CTE. Congress can further support the celebration by making investments in CTE a high priority.
LeAnn Wilson is the executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), which represents tens of thousands of education professionals and is the nation’s largest not-for-profit association committed to the advancement of education that prepares youth and adults for successful careers.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.