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Wes McEntee works on one of several manufacturing machines students use at Vermont Technical College.
Wes McEntee works on a manufacturing machine at Vermont Technical College. Credit: Oliver Parini for The Hechinger Report

A number of recent articles have highlighted the value of career and technical education (CTE) at the individual and system levels. It is truly wonderful to see these programs finally celebrated for all that they can do for students and communities. However, it’s hard not to notice that many of these stories choose to emphasize a disconnect between career and technical education and “college,” positioning the former as a pathway for students not bound for college. As advocates of these programs, we believe it’s important to address this misconception head on.

First things first: College, while often synonymous with a four-year institution, encompasses much more than that. Community college and technical college are both “college,” as are most institutions that award postsecondary credentials or degrees. Even the line between apprenticeships and college is being blurred, with apprentices increasingly earning postsecondary credits and community/technical colleges serving as education providers for industry partners. And let’s not forget about the 3.7 million students in federally supported postsecondary career and technical education programs.

Second, college is still incredibly important, as are bachelor’s degrees. According to Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor’s degree is still the best bet for lifetime earnings, but it’s also true that there is growing value in associate degrees, industry-recognized credentials and long-term postsecondary certificates. At the same time, our over-reliance on bachelor’s degrees as a proxy for workforce-readiness has some serious consequences, with $1.4 trillion in national student debt, half of U.S. adults regretting the degrees they earned, the institutions they attended and/or their fields of study, and about 6 million jobs at risk for so-called degree inflation by employers.

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Third, career and technical education students do go to college! About three-quarters of these students enroll directly in two- and four-year institutions, and research shows that these students are now as likely to go onto postsecondary education after graduation as their peers.

“At the end of the day, career and technical education is about preparing learners for the careers of their choice and supporting them on whatever paths they may take to get there. Our language shouldn’t get in the way of that goal.”

So what’s the way forward? It’s time that we flipped the script and focused less on ensuring “all kids go to college” and more on “all kids should choose a post-high school path that aligns with their career goals.”

For this to happen, we must invest as a country in more career exploration and experiences, particularly through more career advising and career and technical education pathways. Students need more exposure, more support and more direction, starting as early as elementary school.

Related: Colleges are adding programs in a once-decimated industry — manufacturing

We also must ensure that all students take a college- and career-ready program of study, including rigorous academics and career and technical education. States and communities must find a balance among academic, technical, and professional knowledge and skills so that all students are prepared for a lifetime of success.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we — policymakers, parents, students, advocates, members of the media and all other stakeholders — must broaden our language, our advocacy and our understanding of what college is. From a messaging and recruitment perspective, it’s inaccurate and harmful to frame career and technical education as a pathway for students not headed to college.

At the end of the day, career and technical education is about preparing learners for the careers of their choice and supporting them on whatever paths they may take to get there. Our language shouldn’t get in the way of that goal.

This story about career and technical education (CTE) was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Kimberly Green is the executive director of Advance CTE, a national nonprofit representing state CTE leaders.

Kate Kreamer is the deputy executive director of Advance CTE.

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