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Maximizing the Benefits of Career & Technical Education

Post-secondary degrees and technical certifications are validated by research to be important assets for upward economic mobility. Therefore, it is critical that post-secondary and technical education programs are designed in ways that maximize the outcomes for their students.

Emerging insights from MemWorks suggest there could be opportunities to refine policies to better support people experiencing poverty in pursuing post-secondary and technical education.

Industry credentials earned are not aligned with living-wage careers.

Across the state of Tennessee, only 3 in 10 of the industry credentials earned by K-12 students are either being asked for by employers or are for occupations that pay $15 per hour or more (1). Additionally, career & technical education (CTE) program development is managed separately for Tennessee K-12 students and post-secondary education (1). This misalignment introduces challenges for students to transition from CTE in high school to a related post-secondary opportunity.

Free tuition alone is not enabling Shelby County residents to obtain an associate’s degree or technical certification

Many Shelby County students qualify for a free associate’s degree or technical certification, but the three-year graduation rate for Shelby County tnAchieves scholarship recipients is nearly half the state average (20 percent in Shelby County vs. 37 percent across Tennessee) (2).

For students who are economically disadvantaged, only 4 in 10 continue to the second year of their programs. However, there are some promising practices that have been shown to increase student retention. In a pilot conducted in east Tennessee, students who received both a coach and cash assistance for incidental expenses (e.g., gas card, food stipend, books, etc.) had an 84 percent retention rate after their first year (3).


1) ExcelinEd. Tennessee Case Study. Pathways Matter.

2) TNAchieves. Shelby County 2022 Local Update.

3) G. Thomas, Chief Community and Government Relations Officer, personal communication, December 7, 2022

Maximizing the Benefits of Career & Technical Education