Academic journal article Education Next

DEPTH OVER BREADTH: The Value of Vocational Education in U.S. High Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

DEPTH OVER BREADTH: The Value of Vocational Education in U.S. High Schools

Article excerpt

SINCE THE PUBLICATION OF A NATION AT RISK in 1983, policymakers and politicians have worked to stave off a perceived decline in the academic preparation of American students. Stubbornly low scores on international exams and signs that many U.S. graduates are ill-equipped for college and the workforce have lent urgency to this perception, and many states have made high-school graduation requirements more rigorous in response. As a result, American high-school graduates today complete more academic courses and more advanced coursework than they did three decades ago. At first glance, this seems clear evidence of progress.

But much of those gains have come at the expense of student participation in vocational, or career and technical education, classes--a broad category of coursework that encompasses everything from welding, to sports management, to computer science. Many praise this shift, arguing that vocational education in high school deters capable students from college and prepares them for "dead-end" jobs. Yet an opposing camp points to shortages in the skilled professions, noting that not all students are college-bound and that for some, vocational training may be the difference between high- and low-paying jobs. Pushing all students to concentrate on core academic classes at the expense of vocational study, advocates say, takes the focus off the occupationally relevant skills and credentials graduates need for a smooth transition to adulthood.

This raises a central question: What is the relationship between modern-day vocational or career and technical coursework and high-school graduates' success in college or in the workforce? Is vocational education an off ramp to college foisted upon lackluster students, or a different and less costly path toward adult success? We examined high-school and college transcripts and labor-market outcomes for about 4,000 adults to find out.

Our study, making use of a nationally representative sample of early-career Americans, shows that students tend to enroll in vocational classes based on whether such options are available to them, suggesting that the commonly held belief that marginal students are funneled into such classes is untrue. Further, we find that not all vocational classes are equal: students earn about 2 percent more annually for each advanced or upper-level vocational class they take, but enjoy no wage premium for having completed lower-level or introductory vocational study. In terms of college enrollment, while lower-level vocational courses may deter marginal students from college, they have no impact on net graduation rates; advanced courses at worst do no harm.

The implications are considerable. First, students most likely to benefit from vocational coursework seem to be self-selecting into those courses, implying that policies that limit their ability to do so, such as increased course requirements in academic subjects, may not be in all students' best interests. Second, we find that vocational courses may pull students out of college who are the least likely to graduate if they enroll. Finally, the benefits of vocational coursework accrue to students who specialize rather than those who take multiple vocational courses in several areas; therefore, programs should allow for depth in any topic offered. Recent trends toward more specialized concentrations or "pathways" and away from general, non-specialized coursework appear to be smart policy.

A curriculum continuum

In recent decades, vocational study in high school has been on the decline, in tandem with a 32 percent drop since 1985 in federal funding for such programs. Between 1990 and 2009, as the average number of academic credits high-school students earned increased, the number of vocational credits dropped by 14 percent, or roughly two thirds of a year of vocational studies (see Figure 1).

However, the vast majority of American students still take at least one vocational course during high school, and roughly 50 percent take the equivalent of one full course each year. …

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