Shop classes sometimes boost college attendance, Massachusetts study finds

Now a pair of academic researchers from Florida State University and Vanderbilt University have analyzed the Massachusetts Experiment in Career and Technical Education, following students seven years after graduating high school in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Thanks to detailed school records, researchers have been able to. Compare those of the same race or ethnicity, family income, and most importantly, the same eighth grade test scores, grades, and attendance records. The only difference was that some took career training in high school while others took traditional high school courses.

The biggest surprise was that college-going rates were higher for students in five career categories: health care, education, information technology, arts/communications, and business. For example, 77 percent of students who majored in health care enrolled in college within seven years of graduating high school. This is 15 percentage points more than similar students who had a traditional high school education.

“Community colleges have nursing programs and allied health programs that clearly follow after a student’s health care classes in high school,” says Walter Acton, assistant professor of education at Florida State University and lead author of the High School Career Variation and Research study. Published August 2022 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Technical Education Outcomes, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. “Students have a clear path and a clear track that they’re putting themselves on.”

Areas of Concentration for High School Vocational Students in Massachusetts for Graduating Seniors 2009-2011
In Massachusetts, one in five high school students in career programs, graduating between 2009 and 2011, specialized in construction. Students must be enrolled in a career cluster for at least two academic years. Source: Appendix on Disparities in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes. Educational evaluation and policy analysis. August 2022.

Seven years after graduating high school, students in these careers also had higher salaries. For example, health care students earned $5,491 more annually than their traditional high school counterparts.

In contrast, college-going rates were significantly worse in two career fields: construction and transportation, an area that includes auto repair. Students who majored in construction in high school were five percent less likely to attend college than students in similar traditional high schools.

On the bright side, construction had its highest earnings premium in seven years. Students who studied construction earned $7,698 more annually seven years after graduating high school than those who received a traditional high school education. The transportation student earnings premium has dropped from $6,000 (four years after graduation) to $5,000 (seven years after graduation) as traditional high school students begin to catch up.

“Students who go into construction, for at least the first seven years after graduating high school, are earning more than we might otherwise expect, and quite a bit more,” Acton said. “But they’re much less likely to go to college than we would otherwise expect. I think that’s a tough trade-off. Different students and families and counselors can make different choices here.”

Acton’s biggest point is that not all careers and technical educations are the same. “We wanted to understand whether certain career paths were paying more,” he said. “It’s not a simple yes or no answer. It’s what field you’re going into that matters.”

High Earnings for Vocational High School Students in Massachusetts by Field
Annual earnings advantage for CTE majors compared to traditional high school students with similar demographic and academic backgrounds. These statistics compare high school students who graduated between 2009 and 2011 Source: Figure 5. Variation in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes Educational evaluation and policy analysis. August 2022.

In Massachusetts, every career field shows at least some advantage over a traditional high school education—either higher earnings, higher college attendance, or both. But Acton says that’s not a reason for everyone to pursue a vocational high school curriculum.

“For a student who already has very high academic achievement, who is already on a clear path to enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program and graduating, I think there’s less clear evidence to suggest that CTE is necessarily going to help those students,” Acton said. .

“I think CTE can be really useful for students who are less engaged in high school in a traditional classroom setting,” Acton said. “If I were advising a student on whether or not to become a CTE concentrator, I would ask one question, how would you spend your time if you weren’t a CTE student?”

If the alternative is study hall or a test prep class for struggling students, which Acton says is often the case, CTE can be more engaging and help students clear options after high school. Ecton highlighted how ninth-graders at Massachusetts vocational high schools take courses in a variety of careers, from construction to health care to business, to get a taste of many fields before settling on a specialization.

The rosy student experience with career and technical education in Massachusetts may not be true elsewhere. The state has a highly educated population with workforce demand in high technology and healthcare. And Massachusetts has invested heavily in high-quality vocational programs for high school students. A cost-benefit analysis released in September 2022 determined that the public gained between $56,500 and $113,900 from higher earnings and reduced welfare costs for each vocational high school student in Massachusetts. But in Connecticut, benefits were much lower — just $10,000. New Jersey and Delaware run expensive vocational programs and need more analysis to see if they are paying off.

Still, even in Massachusetts, the results are uneven. The Pioneer Institute found that a vocational high school in Boston did not offer such bright benefits for students.

“Sometimes in CTE we see a legacy program that’s been around for a long time,” said Florida State’s Acton. “But maybe it doesn’t set students up for college or a good-paying job right out of high school. But we keep those programs because they’ve been here forever. Maybe they are popular among students too. I would really encourage schools to do this same analysis and make sure they are seeing at least some positive outcomes for students across all their different programs of study.”

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