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The longest-running, most rigorous study yet of high school career academies has found that, in the long run, it pays to attend a career academy—literally.
Researchers found that, even though career academy students are no more likely than peers from traditional high school programs to graduate and go on to college, they make more money eight years out of high school than students who do not attend academies.
“That runs counter to the usual thinking, which is the more you learn, the more you earn,” said James J. Kemple, the lead researcher on the study, which was released June 30 by MDRC, the New York City-based research firm formerly known as Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.
In fact, researchers estimate that the extra $2,088 a year that former academy students make on average is more than the pay boost that other studies have attributed to attending community college for one or two years.
The findings add to a growing body of research pointing to the benefits of career academies, a nearly 40-year-old educational model that blends regular academic content with career-related studies, mentoring, and work experiences. Experts said the new study is more convincing than earlier ones, because it’s based on a more reliable research design and follows students up to age 26.
“This makes the findings more watertight,” said Charles W. Dayton, the coordinator of the Career Academy Support Network, based at the University of California, Berkeley. “Before we saw encouraging patterns, but nothing that was really conclusive.”
In Sync With NCLB?
The results come as some career academies are struggling to maintain their dual mission in the face of what advocates see as mounting pressure to boost student scores on academic tests.
To meet academic demands under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Dayton noted by way of example, many California schools are doubling up mathematics and English classes for low-performing students in 9th and 10th grades. That makes it harder for students to take career-related courses or for schools to continue to offer them, according to some experts.
Experts said the new study suggests educators may not have to make those kinds of trade-offs to get the same academic results and better earnings gains.
“This shows that this is a model that works fine with the academic focus we have now, as long as you’ve built it around academics and the workplace,” said J.D. Hoye, the president of the New York City-based National Academy Foundation, whose members include 500 of the estimated 2,500 career academies nationwide.
The 15-year-long study tracks 1,428 students who applied in the mid-1990s, when they were in the 8th, 9th, or 10th grade, to one of nine career academies in seven cities ranging from Baltimore to Watsonville, Calif. The $12 million project was financed by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, and 18 private foundations.
All the schools studied were in or near districts with higher-than-average concentrations of African-American and Hispanic students and high dropout and unemployment rates. Overall, 85 percent of the students in the study were black or Hispanic, says the report, “Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood.”
The academies were organized around a wide range of career themes, including travel and tourism, finance, public service, and the media. But all had to meet the same basic criteria: They had to be small, typically serving between 150 and 200 students, combine academic classes with career or technical studies, and enlist partners from the local business community to provide career-awareness and job-related opportunites.
Because the programs were oversubscribed, researchers were able to assign students by lottery to either an academy or a regular high school program.
In keeping with previous studies, the MDRC researchers found that, by the time the academy students reached 12th grade, they had gained an academic edge over nonacademy students. Compared with their control-group peers, academy students were more likely to have stayed in school, to have better attendance records, and to be earning more credits toward graduation. The effect was especially strong among students considered to be at highest risk for dropping out of school.
As it turned out, that advantage faded over time. By their mid-20s, more than 90 percent of students in both the control and the experimental groups had either graduated from college or completed a General Educational Development, or GED, certificate. Half the students in both groups had earned a postsecondary credential.
Yet the former academy students were earning an average of 11 percent more per year than the nonacademy students—a wage differential that translates to a total of $16,704 more in earnings for academy students over the eight years after leaving high school.
That effect was strongest among young men and for “at-risk” students, a group for whom few interventions have been proven to work. Among men, annual earnings were 17 percent higher—around $3,371 more per year—for former academy students than those of the men coming out of traditional high school programs.
And this salary growth occurred, the study points out, during a period in which employment rates for men, and young black males in particular, were slipping.
No Edge for Girls
Young women who attended career academies, though, were only earning negligibly more than their counterparts from traditional programs at the time of the eight-year survey, according to the study.
Andrew M. Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, said one reason that females didn’t get the same earnings boost may be that they took time out of the labor market to bear and raise children. “And it may well be that women aren’t getting jobs in a different set of occupations than the control group is,” he added.
The men, by contrast, may have gotten exposure to higher-paying jobs in technical or computer-related fields to which they might not otherwise have had access.
The eight-year survey administration also revealed that former academy students, especially young men, were further along in making a transition to adulthood in other ways, too. Compared with nonacademy students, larger shares of academy students in their mid-20s had left their parents’ homes to live with children and a spouse or partner.
“Money talks,” said Mr. Sum. “For young men, earnings significantly influences the likelihood that they will be married.”
Researchers have yet to pinpoint why career-academy students fared better in the labor market, but they have some hunches.
“I think it was the focus on a whole range of career-awareness and -development activities in high school,” said Mr. Kemple.
For instance, the study showed that, even though only 55 percent of students remained in their academies through the end of high school, most had shadowed adults at work; taken part in internships, summer jobs, or part-time work related to school or received instruction from job mentors; and had learned how to dress for the workplace or prepare a resume.
“These are the kinds of soft skills that help people negotiate their way through the labor market,” Mr. Kemple said.
That makes sense to Brenda Gonzalez, a 1994 graduate of what is now called the Academy of Finance at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif. She studied child development at the University of California, Berkeley, becoming her family’s first college graduate, and now works for a nonprofit group that combats child abuse.
“Not everyone who graduates is going to be a business major, but it does give you the tools to apply to building a career,” she said.
Ms. Gonzalez said her academy experiences exposed her to workplace possibilities and gave her access to computers. Academy teachers also strengthened her typing and writing skills and heightened her motivation to learn, she said.
Another explanation for the earnings boost may be what David S. Stern, an expert on career academies, calls “continuity of experience.” In other words, a subset of students may have been able to stay with the same employers after high school graduation, giving them a leg up, said Mr. Stern, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Mr. Kemple and others warned against applying the findings too broadly. “Career academies aren’t just smaller learning academies, and there’s pressure on them to be all things for all schools,” he said.
Policymakers and educators could be disappointed, Mr. Kemple warned, if they look to the models to produce learning gains or expect diluted versions of career academies to produce the same sorts of workplace benefits.
Researchers plan to continue analyzing the data, looking in particular see which elements of career academies seem to lead to bigger earnings gains down the road.
Mr. Stern, however, said that while the new findings are good news, he doubts they will lessen pressure on schools to boost the academic focus in career academies.
“Unless it’s going to be shown that career academies give you a big boost in test scores, there’s going to continue to be tension between test-based accountability and this kind of educational push,” he said.
Coverage of research in Education Week is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Career Academies Seen to Pay Off in Higher Earnings