Postsecondary career and technical education, commonly known as CTE, is a broad term that encompasses academics, technical skills and on-the-job training to prepare students to enter the workforce upon completion of a program. States support postsecondary CTE primarily through their local community and technical college systems, as well as workforce development programs such as apprenticeships and externships. States also provide students and families with information and resources related to career pathways in postsecondary CTE programs, which often build on similar programs at the high school level and can involve dual credit, dual enrollment or apprenticeships.
Postsecondary CTE Demographics
In 2020-21, 3.5 million students were enrolled in postsecondary CTE programs. More women were enrolled in postsecondary programs than men, a reverse from K-12 CTE programs, which skew toward male participants. Postsecondary CTE students also are more likely to be first-generation college students who have children and are working while enrolled in their education programs.
Postsecondary CTE programs are often important drivers for economic growth and are critical to meeting workforce shortages. The programs can offer stackable credentials for in-demand jobs in IT, skilled trades, manufacturing and customer service professions. These middle-skill jobs provide workers with wage gains and pathways to increasing lifetime earning potential.
Short-Term Postsecondary CTE
Postsecondary CTE programs include both short-term offerings, including certificates, certifications and other nondegree credentials, as well as longer programs that lead to an associate degree. The Urban Institute identified more than 8,000 short-term postsecondary CTE programs nationwide, with six main fields of study including health sciences, business and marketing, personal and culinary services, repair, protective services, and computer/information sciences. The same report shows that short-term postsecondary CTE programs produce median earnings of $32,000 two years after graduation, although earnings vary by program with health sciences and computer/information sciences providing the highest wages. The median debt for short-term postsecondary CTE credentials is $16,077.
Long-Term Postsecondary CTE
Longer-term postsecondary CTE includes associate degree programs. In the 2019-20 academic year, postsecondary institutions conferred over 1 million associate degrees, an increase of 17% compared to a decade prior. Of these degrees, just 17% were in health professions and 5% were in engineering or manufacturing technologies. A 2022 study from Lightcast found that associate degrees in technical fields such as engineering, health and computer/information sciences provide more upward mobility for adult learners than some bachelor’s degrees. Overall, learners with an associate degree earn an average of $8,000 more per year than students with only a high school diploma.