Career & Technical Education

Research: High School Career Tech Ed Outcomes Prove Potent

Vocational education has come a long way since its emphasis on shop classes and cosmetology. For one, such courses now fall under a program called "career and technical education" (CTE). For another, the courses help students develop skills in advanced areas such as IT, cyber security, health services and advanced manufacturing. And for a third, schools no longer consider this kind of training solely as an alternative to college; CTE programs are just as likely to feed students into college.

In fact, according to a new research project that examined CTE in Arkansas, students with a stronger focus on CTE were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to enroll in a two-year college and more likely to be employed after high school and have a higher wage.

The project was undertaken by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who hired Shaun Dougherty, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, to do the research. Dougherty has previously studied high school CTE in Massachusetts and New York City. His results are explained in a new report, "Career and Technical Education in High School: Does it Improve Student Outcomes?"

The report pointed out that in most industrialized countries students begin preparing for their eventual careers while still in high school. In other words, "around the world, CTE is not a track away from a successful adulthood, but rather a path towards it." The United States doesn't follow that pattern, Dougherty noted. Not only do American students lack access for the most part to high-quality CTE, but they face the "bachelor's degree-or-bust mentality," he wrote. "And many do bust, dropping out of college with no degree, no work skills, no work experience, and a fair amount of debt. That's a terrible way to begin adult life."

The Fordham study was undertaken to examine what the impact was on Arkansas students who participated in CTE — and particularly those who pursued a concentration by taking a sequence of three or more courses aligned to a specific career segment. As Dougherty explained, the research was intended to understand what the outcomes were for those students.

His findings: Those students who took just one additional CTE class above the average of three during high school were:

  • 3 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school;
  • 1 percentage point more likely to enroll in a two-year college;
  • 2 percentage points more likely to be employed after high school; and
  • Compensated more than $100 in additional wages in the year after high school.

This group of students was also just as likely as their peers to pursue a four-year degree.

In addition, Dougherty found that the Arkansas students who "concentrated" their CTE coursework in a single program of study were more likely to graduate from high school by 21 percentage points compared to "otherwise similar students" — which he called a "truly staggering" difference. He found other positive links to CTE program concentration. Compared to "non-concentrators," these students were:

  • 42 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school;
  • 8 percentage points more likely to enroll in college; and
  • 11 percentage points more likely to be employed after high school.

The even better news, according to the report, is that CTE doesn't have to be "super-expensive" or "highly exclusive" to gain these positive effects. The form of CTE studied in Arkansas involved courses delivered at the students' high school (in 9 in 10 cases) or regional tech centers (in 1 in 10 cases).

Fordham is using the report to promote increased state investment in CTE at the secondary school level and to push the federal government to reauthorize the long-expired Perkins Act and increase investment for this kind of education.

Other recommendations outlined in the report are these:

  • To look at state labor market projections in order to target "high-growth" segments;
  • To offer CTE courses aligned to skills and industry-recognized credentials in those fields and to encourage or even require high school students to take them;
  • To push or require students to take multiple CTE courses in a given concentration rather than allowing for haphazard enrollment; and
  • To support and encourage dual enrollment in order to make credits "stackable" from high school into college, so that high school CTE courses count toward specific postsecondary credentials.

"Connecting more young people with available opportunities by giving them the skills employers are seeking should be a national priority," the report stated.

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