Skills and training
Research Summary

The Key Benefits of Career and Technical Education Programs in High School

Madeleine SiroisApril 03, 2024
Source: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Title: Heterogeneity in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes Author(s): Walter G. Ecton and Shaun M. Dougherty Original Publication Date: March 2023 Read Full Research Article

Career and technical education, formerly known as vocational education in workforce development parlance, has undergone significant change over the past 20 years. From increased investment to a greater diversity of program offerings, CTE programs continue to chip away at the stereotypes of vocational education as monolithic and inferior to postsecondary education pathways. In fact, new programs are now specifically designed to connect to postsecondary education training, such as nursing.

Given these changes, as well as the renewed interested in alternative pathways to high-quality careers, the authors of this journal article—education and public policy professors Walter Ecton at Florida State University and Shaun Dougherty at Vanderbilt University—set out to better understand the varied outcomes of CTE high school graduates. This research fills a key gap in the existing workforce skills and training literature by distinguishing outcomes both by programs of study and student characteristics.

The population characteristics of interest in the study include students with disabilities, those from low-income families, Black and Latino students, women, those not attending college, and those with low academic test scores. Key outcomes of interest are college enrollment, college completion, earnings, employment, and the likelihood of overcoming adverse economic outcomes such as disengagement from the workforce and poverty. Measured through seven years after one’s expected high school graduation, these data shed light on the potential of career and technical education as a strategy for increasing earnings and education for young adults pursuing advanced education and training pathways, as well as for decreasing the chances of them ending up in poverty and relying on government assistance.

The data come from Massachusetts, including both CTE-dedicated high schools and comprehensive high schools that offer CTE electives or programs. The study’s subjects include cohorts of CTE students expected to graduate high school from spring 2009 to 2017, although most of the analysis is for students from the 2009–2001 cohorts, for which there are seven years of postgrad data. All students included meet the federal definition of CTE “concentrator,” meaning they are enrolled in CTE courses for two or more years during high school. To observe differences across different CTE subjects, the authors created “clusters” of concentrations, such as health care and construction.

Key findings
  • Career and technical education students who attend college earn more than non-CTE students. This is not surprising, especially as more time passes. But in certain fields tightly connected with college-going, such as nursing, career and technical education in high school may be more advantageous.
  • Among students not attending college, CTE concentrators in every career cluster earn higher wages on average throughout the first seven years after their expected high school graduation.
  • The strongest predicted increase in earnings is associated with the construction, transportation, manufacturing, technology, and health care sectors. Students in hospitality, agriculture, and communications see little predicted increase in earnings, especially as time goes on past high school graduation.
  • Career and technical education is associated with anincrease in earnings for several student populations of interest, including students with disabilities, lower-income students, Black and Latino students, and students with the lowest academic scores.
  • Female students disproportionately sort into CTE career fields that lead into postsecondary education, such as nursing and education, leading to more modest advantages that quickly diminish over time. This indicates that the selection of one’s CTE field of study is a key driver for differences in outcomes by gender.
  • CTE concentrators are substantiallymore likely to earn above the poverty threshold than other observable factors, such as parental education attainment, would suggest.
Policy and practice implications

WorkRise has identified the following implications for policy and practice:

  • Policymakers shoulddirect more funding for high school CTE programs to increase the likelihood that students are better equipped to pursue postsecondary educational opportunities and better-paying careers in the US workplace.
  • CTE coursework should include a balance between skills needed for a specific occupation and general skills instruction, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and reading proficiencies. This would ensure that these graduates have a wide skill set to face a rapidly changing US economy and be successful in any further training and education.

This study shows the great variance in economic outcomes for high school CTE graduates in their young adulthoods across different career clusters and student populations. The authors conclude that these results suggest a reframing of career and technical education as more heterogenous than it has traditionally been considered. With that in mind, it is abundantly clear that career and technical education in high school prepare graduating students with a strong alternative to expensive four-year postsecondary degree pathways into the US workforce, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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