Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

An Examination of Career and Technical Education Course Taking and Labor Markets across Two High School Cohorts

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

An Examination of Career and Technical Education Course Taking and Labor Markets across Two High School Cohorts

Article excerpt

Educational attainment matters. Students who drop out of high school have poorer social, civic, health, and economic outcomes. (1) By contrast, students who complete high school with a traditional four-year diploma enjoy lower rates of unemployment and higher average earnings. (2) Despite historically high tuition rates--and debt--college graduates continue to earn more over a lifetime than their counterparts with just a high school diploma. (3)

And yet, while degree completion determines future success, the paths students choose toward completion also matter. (4) For example, lifetime earnings vary by college major. (5) In high school, mathematics and science coursework predicts higher earnings, as does pursuing a STEM-related major in college. (6) Indeed, high school course taking matters a great deal. (7) This fact is perhaps most true for vocationally oriented students looking to enter the labor market immediately after high school, since high school coursework will largely shape their skill sets and readiness for the workforce.

But the lines historically used to separate "vocational" and "academic" students have blurred with the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 and the arrival of the college and career readiness (CCR) era. According to the US Department of Education, a CCR approach holds that "every student should graduate from high school ready for college or a career. Every student should have meaningful opportunities to choose from upon graduation from high school." (8) In the post-Perkins context, coursework once designed for so-called "vocational education" students has been redesigned and rebranded as career and technical education (CTE) and is now largely seen as an important, if not essential, tool in ensuring students are prepared for college and career. (9)

The shift away from vocational education to contemporary CTE comes with promising educational outcomes. For instance, CTE coursework has been associated with boosted rates of graduation and decreased rates of dropout. (10) High school CTE participation has been linked to numerous positive labor market outcomes in the short term, including increased rates of employment and higher average wages. (11)

The long-term economic returns to CTE are less clear. (12) What also remains unclear is the degree to which CTE course taking in high school correlates with nearby labor market demands. More specifically, even though the latest iteration of Perkins (2018) aims to "align workforce skills with labor market needs," research has yet to investigate whether students actually complete high school CTE coursework that systematically correlates with the labor market needs in their proximal geographical areas. (13) Previous research has also not examined the degree to which these relationships have changed over time as national CTE policy goals (e.g., Perkins) have shifted and perceptions of CTE have evolved.


CTE today looks different from what it was in years past. First, what is now branded as CTE was originally focused around training students for agricultural and mechanical occupations that were in high demand but did not require a postsecondary degree, particularly in the postwar period. And though it was not explicitly prescribed, vocational education in years past was oriented toward less academically adept students. Vocational education was also, unfortunately, often a tracking mechanism used to sort low-income students and students of color into stagnate, low-wage occupations.

There is less evidence of this tracking today, at least according to the historical usage of the term. (14) According to the US Department of Education, students enroll in fewer CTE courses overall in high school than in previous years, though course taking in some CTE fields has increased. (15) Fewer students concentrate (i.e., complete two or more courses) in a given CTE field as well. (16) However, a larger and more diverse pool of students enroll in CTE courses in high school today than in prior years. …

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