IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

It All Adds Up: Why and How to Measure the Cost of Career & Technical Education

Cost analysis is a critical part of education research because it communicates what resources are needed for a particular program or intervention. Just telling education leaders how promising a program or practice can be does not tell the whole story; they need to know how much it will cost so that they can prioritize limited resources. Since 2015, cost analysis has been required for IES-funded Efficacy/Impact studies (and for Development Innovation studies as of 2019) and is included in the IES Standards for Excellence in Education Research.

In this guest blog for CTE Month, two members of the CTE Research Network’s cost analysis working group, David Stern, an advisor to the network, and Eric Brunner, a co-PI of one of the research teams, discuss how costs associated with CTE programs may differ from those of standard education and how to measure those costs.

Photo of David SternWhy is cost analysis different in Career & Technical Education (CTE) research?

Due to additional, non-standard components needed in some types of career training, CTE can cost much more than the education resources needed in regular classrooms. For instance, CTE classes often use specialized equipment—for example, hydraulic lifts in automotive mechanics, stoves and refrigerators in culinary arts, or medical equipment in health sciences—which costs significantly more than equipment in the standard classroom. Having specialized equipment for student use can also constrain class size to be smaller, resulting in higher cost-per-pupil.  High schools and community colleges may also build labs within existing buildings or construct separate buildings to house CTE programs with specialized equipment. These required facility expenses will need to be recognized in cost calculations.

CTE programs can also provide co-curricular experiences for students alongside classes in career-related subjects, such as work-based learning, career exploration activities, or integrated academic coursework. Schools are usually required to provide transportation for students to workplaces, college campuses for field trips, or regional career centers, which is another expense. Finally, the budget lines for recruiting and retaining teachers from some higher paying career areas and industries (such as nursing or business) may exceed those for average teacher salaries. All of these costs add up. To provide useful guidance for the field, CTE researchers should measure and report the cost of these features separately.

Photo of Eric BrunnerHow is resource cost different from reported spending? 

There are also some hidden costs to account for in research on CTE. For example, suppose a school does not have a work-based learning (WBL) coordinator, so a CTE teacher is allowed one of their 5 periods each day to organize and oversee WBL, which may include field trips to companies, job shadowing experiences, internships, or a school-based enterprise. The expenditure report would show 20% of the teacher’s salary has been allocated for that purpose. In reality, however, a teacher may devote much more than 20% of their time to this. They may in fact be donating to the program by spending unpaid time or resources (such as transportation in their own vehicle to visit employer sites to coordinate learning plans) outside the workday. It is also possible that the teacher would spend less than 20% of their time on this. To obtain an accurate estimate of the amount of this resource cost at a particular school, a researcher would have to measure how much time the teacher actually spends on WBL.  This could be done as part of an interview or questionnaire.

Similarly, high school CTE programs are increasingly being developed as pathways that allow students to move smoothly to postsecondary education, such as via dual enrollment programs or directly to the labor market. Building and sustaining these pathways takes active collaboration between secondary and postsecondary educators and employers. However, the costs of these collaborations in terms of time and resources are unlikely to be found in a school expenditure report. Thus, an incremental cost analysis for CTE pathway programs must go beyond budgets and expenditure reports to interview or survey program administrators and staff about the resources or “ingredients” that programs require to operate. A recent example of a cost study of a CTE program can be found here.

Are there any resources for calculating CTE Costs?

In this blog, we have presented some examples of how the costs associated with CTE programs may differ from those of a standard education. To help CTE researchers conduct cost analysis, the CTE Research Network has developed a guide to measuring Incremental Costs in Career and Technical Education, which explains how to account for the particular kinds of resources used in CTE. The guide was developed by the working group on cost analysis supported by the CTE Research Network.


The Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network has supported several cross-network working groups comprised of members of network research teams and advisors working on issues of broad interest to CTE research. Another CTE Network working group developed an equity framework for CTE researchers, which was described in a blog for CTE month in February, 2023.

This blog was produced by Corinne Alfeld, NCER program officer for the CTE research topic and the CTE Research Network. Contact: Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov.