College & Workforce Readiness

Career and Tech Ed. Courses Don’t Boost Chances of College-Going, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — October 31, 2017 5 min read
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Taking career and technical education classes in high school increases students’ odds of graduating on time, but doesn’t improve their chances of enrolling in college, according to a paper published Tuesday.

The findings are likely to inform the expanding national conversation about the role that career and technical education can play in the lives of high school students as they prepare for jobs and college. Policymakers are increasingly touting CTE as a road to college, and the new paper adds to evidence that questions how solid that linkage is.

The study was published today in the American Educational Research Journal, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. It was conducted by two scholars from the University of California at Santa Barbara: Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education, and Jay S. Plasman, a doctoral student. They tracked a cohort of about 10,000 students from 2002 to 2006, starting when the students were 10th graders, and following up as they moved into their first couple of years after high school.

The study found that taking yearlong courses in career and technical education increase students’ chances of graduating from high school in four years, and decreases their chances of dropping out. It’s also the first to examine the question of timing: It found that taking CTE courses in 11th and 12th grades increases students’ odds of graduating on time, and not dropping out, more so than taking those courses in 9th or 10th grades.

Career Tech Ed as a Weapon Against Dropping Out

A yearlong career-tech-ed course taken anytime during high school, for instance, decreased the odds of dropping out by 1.2 percent for each course, the study finds. Each course taken in 11th or 12th grades, however, decreased students’ dropout chances by 1.6 percent, a dynamic the authors say represents “promising evidence” of CTE’s potential to keep students in school.

It could be, they wrote in the paper, that CTE students make connections between their schoolwork and how it relates to opportunities after high school. “This may be especially critical for students at risk of high school dropout—linking educational content with practical experiences might help to solidify the relevance to keep students on track for graduation,” the paper says.

On-Time Graduation: Better Chances Through Career Study

Gottfried and Plasman found that each yearlong career and technical education course students took sometime during high school boosted their chances of on-time graduation by 1.6 percent.

Broken down by grade level, the effect escalates as students get older. There was no significant effect on graduation for freshmen. For 10th graders, the likelihood of on-time graduation increased .7 percent with each CTE course taken. For 11th graders, the chances of on-time graduation rose 1.5 percent with each yearlong CTE course, and for seniors, it was 1.6 percent better with each course.

The links between career tech ed study and college-going were weak or nonexistent, however. Gottfried and Plasman studied four college-related outcomes for students who took yearlong CTE courses: whether they ever applied to college, whether they enrolled in college right after high school; whether they enrolled in college within two years of finishing high school, and whether they ever enrolled in college at all.

Weak Link Between Career Study and College Enrollment

They found that taking CTE courses had no effect on whether students went to college right after high school. They found only a small effect on college application, and only for students who took one or more CTE classes in 12th grade. And they found that 11th graders who took CTE were .8 of a percent more likely to attend college, and .8 of a percent more likely to go to college within two years. But that effect was absent at other grade levels.

Career-tech-ed study and college-going might not be strongly linked because CTE students learned skills in those courses than enable them to go directly into the workforce, so they are less likely to perceive a need to go to college, Gottfried and Plasman write in the paper.

Data that the two authors gathered show that students who took more CTE courses were more likely to report that they weren’t seeking a bachelor’s degree in the future, and more likely to have parents with only a high school diploma. But in an interview, Gottfried and Plasman said their findings controlled for those factors.

The authors aimed their findings at the policymaking conversation about career and tech ed, and its potential to supply the college pipeline. The lack of strong, positive links to postsecondary outcomes is noteworthy, they wrote, and suggests “the need for further assessment of the reach of high school CTE coursetaking if indeed policymakers wish to more effectively rely on CTE to address college-going gaps.”

Feeding the College Pipeline

Even though the findings showed no strong link between career-tech-ed courses and college-going, that doesn’t mean that CTE courses don’t help feed the college pipeline, Gottfried and Plasman said in an interview.

“The pipeline to college goes through high school,” Gottfried said. “Our study shows that career and technical education does supply that pipeline by increasing the odds of high school completion.”

The paper examined all students who took a yearlong career and technical education course, and didn’t isolate the effect of being a CTE “concentrator"—taking three related CTE courses. It also didn’t tease out whether there were any differences in dropout, high school completion or college-going among different CTE fields.

Research last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that CTE concentrators in Arkansas are much more likely to graduate from high school on time than other students, and more likely to go to two-year colleges.

A 2014 study, which followed 2004 high school graduates for eight years, found that CTE concentrators were less likely to attend or complete four-year college programs, but also found that those rates varied significantly according to the field of CTE study.

Eighty-four percent of students who concentrated in computer and information went to college, for instance, compared to 52 percent for students who concentrated in repair and transportation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.