Advanced Vocational Classes Boost Early Career Earnings

A new study of the schooling and workforce outcomes for 4,414 "early-career" adults (median age 29) found that students earned about 2 percent more each year for each advanced or upper-level vocational class or career and technical education class they completed in high school. The research was published as an article in Education Next.

Authors Daniel Kreisman of Georgia State University and Kevin Stange from the University of Michigan also noted that rather than directing "capable students" away from pursuing more academic pursuits, the vocational courses enabled them to make better enrollment decisions for their college careers.

The authors looked at data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1998 to 2015. Their analysis included a study of the effects of taking low-level vocational courses, defined as courses that were first in a sequence, versus advanced vocational courses.

Among the key findings: Advanced vocational classes boosted future earnings regardless of whether or not the student ended up attending college.

Also, taking those advanced courses may have dampened four-year college enrollment but didn't affect college completion. The authors interpreted this to mean that students who were "nudged away" from pursuit of a bachelor's degree would have been unlikely to earn the degree anyway, even if they had enrolled.

Almost all students took at least one vocational class during high school (95 percent in the study sample); and about half took the equivalent of a full course each year. The higher the grade, the more likely students were to enroll in a vocational class, probably because they've completed their academic requirements and have more control over their class schedules.

However, the average number of vocational credits earned by high school students dropped by 14 percent between 1990 and 2009. That shrinkage coincided, the report noted, with a 32 percent decline in federal funding for such programs, a falling off that had begun in 1985.

Over the last three decades, while academic credits have grown among high school students, the number of vocational or career and technical education credits has declined.

Over the last three decades, while academic credits have grown among high school students, the number of vocational or career and technical education credits has declined. Source: "Depth Over Breadth: The value of vocational education in U.S. high schools"

The researchers came away with three conclusions:

  • Students who were most likely to benefit from vocational classes seemed to be "self-selecting into those courses," suggesting that policies that limit their ability to take them — such as increased emphasis on academic subjects — "may not be in all students' best interests";
  • Vocational courses may pull students out of college who were the least likely to graduate even if they did enroll; and
  • The benefits of a vocational education go to those students "who specialize," not the ones who try out multiple courses in various subjects. Therefore, programs need to "allow for depth in any topic offered." For example, the "pathways" approach that guides students through specialized concentrations of courses "appears to be smart policy."

The report is openly available on the Education Next website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.