There’s one education gap that’s been getting a lot of talk lately: the rural/urban education gap. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the percentage of adults with two-year or four-year degrees is 14 percentage points lower in rural areas than urban areas. USDA also reports that educational attainment has an inverse relationship with poverty. Four out of five “low-education” counties are rural, and these counties are much more likely to experience high rates of poverty. 

That’s why a number of states are turning to career technical education (CTE) to bolster credential attainment in rural areas and prepare learners for high-wage employment in growing industry sectors. CTE provides students the academic and technical skills, knowledge and training to be prepared for both college and careers. 

Completing a CTE program of study is associated with higher graduation rates, college preparation, academic achievement, and employment outcomes. Yet, despite the clear evidence of CTE’s effectiveness, rural schools, school districts, and institutions of higher education face myriad challenges with expanding and strengthening high-quality career pathways. 

Advance CTE, a national organization representing state directors of CTE, recently developed a toolkit to help states improve rural access to high-quality CTE. The toolkit includes a strategy guide, an overview of federal funding opportunities, and a series of case studies examining the most pressing challenges with serving rural learners. 

These challenges include: 

  • Ensuring all programs are high-quality and aligned to labor market needs. This includes defining quality criteria, empowering local leaders with data and resources to assess the quality of their program offerings, and discontinuing legacy programs that do not lead to positive outcomes for learners. 
  • Connecting learners with the world of work through meaningful employer mentorships and work-based learning opportunities. Rural communities often lack the rich employer base that is present in metropolitan areas and economic hubs, limiting their ability to engage and build relationships with industry experts. These relationships are critical for successful CTE programs. 
  • Providing access to diverse career pathways. Whereas well-funded urban schools with large student populations may have a menu of diverse options to choose from, rural schools and colleges are often limited in the number of courses and programs they can provide. As a result, students are often unable to pursue their study of interest. 
  • Strengthening the pipeline of qualified educators. Recruiting experienced teachers is an urgent challenge, no matter the locale. Rural schools in particular struggle to recruit CTE teachers due to competitive industry wages, declining CTE teacher preparation programs, and a limited industry base from which to recruit. 

Improving educational attainment and career readiness in rural areas is a necessary cause, but what are states to do? For starters, it helps to set a clear vision, gather input and buy in from state leaders, and map the resources available to invest in a rural CTE strategy. 

Consider Nebraska’s reVISION initiative. In 2013, Nebraska Career Education launched reVISION using seed funding from the state’s Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins) reserve fund. Schools and districts participating in the initiative meet with employers, parents, and community leaders to identify needs and develop an action plan for improving CTE program offerings. School leaders evaluate the degree to which these programs meet postsecondary entrance requirements and, using data provided by the Nebraska Department of Labor and the Department of Economic Development, whether they are aligned to regional labor market needs. 

ReVISION gives rural administrators a roadmap to improve the quality of their CTE programs and the funding to develop and strengthen program offerings in high-wage sectors. As a result, 87 percent of participating sites reported adopting at least one new CTE course or program through reVISION. State legislators in Nebraska have made note of reVISION’s success and dedicated additional resources to expand the program. Since 2013, the state has awarded over $3 million in action grants to 87 districts.  

As Nebraska demonstrates, it takes a coordinated and strategic effort to ensure all rural learners can realize the future that CTE promises. Advance CTE’s rural CTE resources can help states learn from and replicate Nebraska’s success, using data, partnership, technology, and funding to transform rural career pathways.