CTE Doesn’t go far Enough

Praj Kulkarni
5 min readFeb 8, 2021

Over the past few years, Career and Technical education has received a lot of attention: in 2017 almost every state enacted a career and technical education (CTE) related law, executive action or budget provision. The National Governors Association identified CTE as one of its 12 priorities. Media mentions of CTE even surpassed those of Kim Kardashian and NBA superstar Stephen Curry.

Conservatives have especially become interested in CTE. In the past two years Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio both introduced pro-CTE legislation, and Hawley has aggressively attacked the “higher education monopoly.” Prominent right-of-center think tanks have promoted it, and last fall the Republican Study Committee’s ‘Reclaiming the American Dream’ aimed to help students understand that “CTE and apprenticeship programs are a viable way for students to achieve quality, high paying jobs.”

These are positive trends. The right should try to disrupt the assumption that everyone should go to college — a model that works for maybe 20% of students.

However, there are two problems with using CTE to disrupt this model. First, separating vocational-students will only worsen the “cultural imperative to push more people into the college pipeline” because–regardless of pay–the CTE track is where blue-collar workers would end up.

Whether we like it or not, the educated elite don’t want their children to end up in those jobs. Since the top 20% has an outsized influence in these discussions, they will oppose reorienting an educational system that greatly benefits them. From a purely strategic standpoint, education reforms would have a much better chance of success if the coalition includes the most influential group in American policy.

Second, and beyond the question of political strategy, CTE doesn’t account for the phenomena of credential inflation. As described by economist Bryan Caplan: “In an over-qualified labor market, employers fill the “highest” jobs with those who have the “highest” credentials. Since over-schooling means there are too many workers who are highly educated, some of these workers are necessarily allocated to “mid-level” jobs. This process is repeated for those with mid-level qualifications, where, since there are not enough mid-level jobs, many are forced to compete for low-level jobs.”

We’re already at the point where it’s common for file clerks, baristas and bartenders to have college degrees. Washington, DC now requires child-care workers to have a college degree of some form. The less-credentialed workers who should be competing for these jobs thus have a much harder time getting a foot in the door.

Higher up the education ladder, we see that American medical school is much longer than most countries, and doctors now often have to complete a laboratory or clinical research project that may not help them be better doors. Engineering majors must take difficult courses in esoteric math concepts that they rarely use after getting a job. Even business students must take calculus — although such higher level math is rarely used outside of the classroom.

Credential inflation and the power of the credentialed elite have led to two bad outcomes: colleges have become the gatekeepers to all white-collar jobs, and traditionally blue-collar jobs have started requiring more education. If the right doesn’t fight these trends head-on, at some point everyone may need some post-secondary education and there will be no true blue-collar jobs left.

Exclusively focusing on CTE as the solution to our education woes implies that college works just fine for the top 20% . But America’s education obsession hurts all students. Even if some eventually graduate from college, the experience is much more painful than it needs to be.

The good news is that these shortcomings can be overcome by recognizing that CTE proponents’ central insight — that many students need less academics and more concrete skills — is correct. It just needs to be extended to all students, not just those who might end up in a vocational school. CTE doesn’t go far enough.

Rather than a CTE track, it would be better to have a jobs or working track. This pathway would still offer “close partnerships between school systems and employers that get students in the workplace, earning money and industry credentials, while they are still completing their formal education.” But these partnerships and credentials would be in sales, marketing, engineering, as well as vocational jobs.

The policies proposed for CTE can also apply to white collar professions. For example, many companies train their sales team after they are hired. There’s no intrinsic reason why such companies shouldn’t be able to use the “workforce trainee grants” suggested by the Manhattan Institute to setup training programs with other employers, high schools, and community colleges.

The companies benefit because they would be able to cultivate a sales team at a lower cost than usual. The students benefit because they would be opening the door to a high-paying career. In software at least, it’s common for sales people to be promoted into product marketing, product management and the executive team.

Reformers aim to expose students to career paths that don’t depend on a college degree. But they have spent less attention on expanding the number of those paths. There are many smart children who don’t want to sit in a classroom but would love the chance to work in an office. There are also many students who are not academically inclined, but who also don’t enjoy vocational work.

Simply put: many students don’t fit into either a college or CTE track. A more general working track would have more support and impact because it appeals to a broader range of career interests and cognitive abilities.

* The Republican Study Committee appears to have removed their report Congressman Jim Banks’s webpage. You can read about the report here.

Note: This essay synthesizes some of the arguments I raise in these posts: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

There are two themes I want to expand on in future essays. One is my critique of the ‘academic approach to learning.’ And two, I want to examine the intrinsic reasons why conservatives should be cautious about CTE. Or rather, my essay outlined why CTE may be ineffective at achieving its stated aims. But even if those aims could be achieved, I still think we should be wary of policies that reinforce the trends towards class and educational segregation.

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Praj Kulkarni

Full-time husband, dad and foster-care advocate. Part-time writer and politics junkie. Former space-physicist and Denver City Council District 1 candidate.