Until the late 1990s, “vocational education” in traditional trades such as carpentry, cosmetology, and auto mechanics was often the presumptive high school placement for low-performing students considered ill-suited for college. However, in the past two decades, policymakers and educators have reconsidered what is now referred to as “Career and Technical Education” (CTE). Done right, secondary CTE provides preparation and skill building for careers in elds such as information technology, health services, and advanced manufacturing, in which many positions require a postsecondary education. While some high school CTE students do enter the workforce without additional training, many secondary CTE programs feed participants into professional certi cation or associate degree programs at two- or four-year colleges. The goal of today’s CTE is simple: to connect students with growing industries in the American economy and to give them the skills and training required for long-term success.
Unfortunately, little is known about this “new vocationalism.” This study uses a rich set of data from the Arkansas Research Center (ARC) to follow three cohorts—more than 100,000 students—from eighth grade, through high school, and into college and/or the workforce. It asks:
- Which students are taking CTEcourses? Which courses—and how many of them—are they taking?
- Does greater exposure to CTE improveeducation and employment outcomes (high school graduation, college enrollment, employment status, and wages)?
- Does CTE “concentration” (taking a sequence of three or more courses in an occupationally aligned “program of study”) have bene ts for students? Do certain students bene t more than others?
Arkansas is a compelling case study because it recently overhauled its policies to improve career readiness and align CTE programs with the labor market. Further, beginning with the class of 2014, all high school students must take six units of “career focus” coursework to graduate, which they can ful ll with CTE. Arkansas is one of the few states that has linked K-12, postsecondary, and workforce data for long enough so that questions about the e cacy of secondary CTE can be addressed.
1. MOST STUDENTS IN ARKANSAS TAKE CTE, WITH LIMITED EVIDENCE OF “TRACKING.”
Students took an average of 4.9 CTE courses in high school. More specifically, 89 percent took at least one CTE class; only 30 percent took two classes or fewer; 39 percent took between three and six, and 31 percent took seven or more. Exposure to CTE coursework differs slightly by race, disability status, income, and gender. In particular, white students, students with disabilities, and female students are slightly overrepresented among students taking seven or more courses; Latino students are underrepresented. It does not appear, however, that higher-achieving students are steered away from CTE. For example, although low achievers (as defined by eighth grade math test scores) are slightly overrepresented in the seven-or-more courses category, so are middle achievers. And high achievers are not taking fewer courses than other students.
2. WHITE AND FEMALE STUDENTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO CONCENTRATE, AND SOME CONCENTRATIONS ARE MORE OR LESS POPULAR DEPENDING ON A STUDENT’S GENDER, RACE, INCOME LEVEL, AND DISABILITY STATUS.
Nearly 30 percent of all students choose to “concentrate” by earning three or more credits in a formal, coordinated program of study. The most popular concentrations are business, family and consumer sciences, and agriculture. Compared to the general student population, “concentrators” are slightly more likely to be white or female and slightly less likely to be Latino. Male students are overrepresented in concentrations related to agriculture, architecture and construction, manufacturing, STEM, and transportation and logistics. Female students are overrepresented in concentrations related to education, health sciences, and human services.
Students with disabilities are neither overrepresented nor underrepresented among concentrators as a group—but they concentrate in greater numbers in manufacturing; and transportation and logistics (and are underrepresented in nance and health sciences, among others). Likewise, students who are free or reduced-price lunch eligible are proportionally represented among all concentrators, but more frequently concentrate in government and public administration, transportation and logistics, and law and public safety. They are particularly underrepresented in education, STEM, and arts and communications.
3. THE MORE CTE COURSES STUDENTS TAKE, THE BETTER THEIR EDUCATION AND LABOR MARKET OUTCOMES.
In general, taking just one additional CTE course above the average increases a student’s probability of graduating from high school by 3.2 percentage points and of enrolling in a two-year college the following year by 0.6 percentage points. It also increases a student’s probability of being employed the year after graduation by 1.5 percentage points and boosts his or her expected quarterly wage that year by $28 (or roughly 3 percent). Dual enrollment— earning college credit while still in high school—magni es the impact of an additional CTE course by doubling the probability that a student will enroll in a two-year college the year after graduation. All of these di erences are statistically significant.
4. STUDENTS WHO CONCENTRATE SEE ADDITIONAL BENEFITS, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION.
Concentrators are 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than otherwise identical students (with similar demographics, eighth grade test scores, and number of CTE courses taken) who do not concentrate. In the year after high school, concentrators are 0.9 percentage points more likely to be employed (with average quarterly wages that are $45 higher), and 1.3 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in a two-year college, than similar non-concentrators.
5. MALE AND LOW-INCOME STUDENTS SEE THE LARGEST BENEFITS TO CONCENTRATING.
Students of both genders are more likely to graduate from high school if they concentrate, but boys see a bigger boost. Compared to similar male non-concentrators, they are 23 percentage points more likely to graduate, while female concentrators are 19 percentage points more likely to graduate than similar females who do not concentrate.
All else equal, concentrating gives male students a far greater wage bene t than it does female students ($89 more per quarter versus no signi cant bene t). Low-income concentrators are 25 percentage points more likely to graduate than low-income non-concentrators, while higher-income concentrators are only 17 percentage points more likely to graduate than their non-concentrator peers.