With the beginning of the school year underway, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of the big picture.

For years, academic success meant graduating from high school and enrolling in a four-year university or college. It’s time to rethink that definition of success in New Mexico.

New Mexico’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are doing an outstanding job in keeping students engaged and graduating them from high school. Students who choose to enroll in CTE courses are more likely to make it to graduation.

The average high school graduation rate for CTE-focused students is 93 percent. Compare that with New Mexico’s 2018 high school graduation rate of 73.9 percent, which was an all-time high.

A recent presentation given to the Legislative Education Study Committee reported that at-risk students are eight to 10 times less likely to drop out during their junior and senior years of high school if they enroll in a CTE program.

In 2017, over 62,000 students participated in CTE programs across the state. Of this number, 71 percent were Hispanic or Native American students, and 75 percent were economically disadvantaged.

There is a massive skills gap in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are over 7 million available jobs in the United States, and most of them do not require a bachelor’s degree.

Our service and information-technology economies rely on skilled workers to maintain our electrical grid, staff our medical facilities and keep our computer networks humming. We take these occupations for granted, but without them, our modern lives would grind to a halt.

Given the overwhelming evidence that CTE programs help our students and our state, I sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to expand their reach and encourage more students to enroll in them. This bill allows students to substitute a CTE course or work-based training program in place of one of the English, science or math units required for graduation.

Students can, for example, take a financial literacy class in exchange for a math unit. Students are limited to substituting just one unit in each of the three subject areas.

The bill was well received by my colleagues. It was unanimously approved by both chambers and signed into law in April of this year.

New Mexico’s current graduation standards were developed to encourage a college-prep program of study. However, unemployment among college graduates is at historic levels, and so is student debt, at $1.5 trillion.

Not every student needs or wants to get a degree. We should support those who elect to pursue a CTE program just as much as those who follow a college-prep schedule.

The purpose of any education system is to prepare students for the future. Career and technical programs give all kids a chance to pursue meaningful work.

Encouraging more kids to enroll in these programs will keep them in school and give them the skills they need to build New Mexico’s economy for years to come.

(Tim Lewis, a Rio Rancho Republican, represents New Mexico House of Representatives District 60. He is also a teacher at Cibola High School.)