College & Workforce Readiness

Career Programs Offer Pay Boost, Study Says

By Sean Cavanagh — March 17, 2004 4 min read
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Young men who graduate from career academies, a form of schooling launched in the 1960s to keep students from dropping out of high school and provide them with job skills, are rewarded with higher-paying jobs upon entering the workforce, according to a new study.

The report—which was set for release March 15—also says that academy graduates are no more or less likely to attend college, compared with youths from similar backgrounds who followed traditional high school curricula.

The report, “Career Academies Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes and Educational Attainment,” is available from MDRC.

Female students, however, did not reap the same postgraduation earnings as male academy graduates, concludes the study, conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit, New York City-based research organization.

Still, researchers saw the study as proof of career academies’ ability to help a segment of the school population that traditionally has failed to benefit from educational improvement efforts aimed at helping them.

“Here’s a study that provides convincing evidence that career-related programs in high school have a payoff,” said James J. Kemple, a senior fellow at MDRC and the primary author of the report. “This study suggests we have an intervention that works.”

The report says that male career-academy graduates earned an average of $1,373 a month during the four years after high school, compared with $1,161 for non-academy peers from similar backgrounds. That amounted to a $10,000 advantage over the four-year period.

Male-Female Gap

“Finding anything that works for disadvantaged young people, and in particular, disadvantaged young men, is so rare,” said Harry J. Holzer, a Georgetown University public-policy professor familiar with the report.

See Also...

View the accompanying chart, “Improved Earnings.”

MDRC, formerly known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., tracked 1,458 students over a 10-year period, beginning in 1993. At least 85 percent of those students were African-American or Hispanic. Graduates of career academies were compared with a control group of 8th and 9th grade students who applied but were not accepted to the career programs.

While male academy graduates saw a postgraduation payoff, female graduates did not, compared with non-academy peers, the study found. The young women earned an average of $995 a month after graduation, compared with $956 a month for non-academy graduates. That difference is statistically negligible, Mr. Kemple noted.

Some of the earnings disparity, Mr. Kemple speculated, could have been caused by low-income females’ removal from the higher-wage-earning pool by having children, or going to college—an academic step they took at a higher rate than males did.

But Jocelyn Samuels of the National Women’s Law Center said the disparity could be linked to the tendency of vocational programs to guide girls, intentionally or not, into fields of study that lead to lower- paying jobs. In the past, the Washington-based group has accused K-12 career and technical programs of reinforcing gender stereotypes.

“This is, unfortunately, consistent with patterns we see across the board,” said Ms. Samuels, the law center’s vice president of education and employment. Students’ decisions about career-oriented classes in high school, she said, “have lifelong impact.”

College and Careers

Career academies today are typically run as schools within high schools, though some operate independently. Numerous states and cities sponsor them, with academy programs offering training in areas from electronics to travel and tourism.

Supporters say many of the estimated 2,500 academies across the country offer students academic training for college, too. The impact of a career-academy education on college aspirations is mixed, the study found.

Overall, 54 percent of male academy graduates had completed or were in the process of finishing some form of postsecondary education or professional program. The non-academy group had slightly more success, with 58.5 percent choosing that route. Female academy graduates were slightly more likely to choose postsecondary options than their non-academy peers, the study found.

But only 40 percent of male academy graduates the study deemed at high risk of dropping out chose postsecondary options, compared with 49 percent of non-academy graduates.

The MDRC report acknowledges that the 9- point gap “is sufficiently large to raise a caution about potential tradeoffs between education and work.” But it also notes that the margin of error for those figures made the disparity statistically insignificant.

For years, skeptics have asked whether career academies were pulling low-income students away from the college path, Mr. Kemple said. The study’s results suggested those fears were unfounded, he said.

“We would have expected a reduction [in college-going rates],” Mr. Kemple said. “We didn’t find that.”

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