Shop class sometimes boosts going to college, Massachusetts study finds

Now, two academic researchers from Florida State University and Vanderbilt University have analyzed the Massachusetts Experiment on Professional and Technical Education by tracking students seven years after graduating from high school in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Thanks to detailed school records, the researchers were able to compare students of the same race or ethnicity, family income, and most importantly, with the same eighth-grade test scores, grades, and attendance records. The only difference was that some took vocational training in high school, while others took traditional high school courses.

The biggest surprise was that college enrollment rates were higher for students in five career categories: healthcare, education, information technology, arts/communications, and business. For example, 77 percent of students majoring in public health enrolled in college within seven years of high school. That’s 15 percentage points higher than similar students who had a traditional high school education.

“There are nursing programs and allied health programs in community colleges that clearly follow a student’s health education in high school,” said Walter Ecton, assistant professor of education at Florida State University and lead author of the Heterogeneity in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes study , published August 2022 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. “Students have a clear path and a clear path to set themselves on.”

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Priorities for Vocational High School Students in Massachusetts for Graduating Seniors 2009-2011
In Massachusetts, one in five high school students in career programs graduating between 2009 and 2011 majored in construction. The students had to be enrolled in the career cluster for at least two academic years. Source: Appendix of Heterogeneity in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes. Educational evaluation and policy analysis. Aug 2022.

Seven years after graduating from high school, the salaries of these vocational students were also higher. For example, healthcare students earned $5,491 more annually than their traditional high school peers.

In contrast, enrollment rates were significantly worse for two career fields: construction and transportation, a field that includes auto repair. Students who majored in construction majors in high school were five percent less likely to go to college than comparable traditional high school students.

On the plus side, construction had the highest profit premium after seven years. Students majoring in civil engineering earned $7,698 more annually seven years after high school than comparable students who had a traditional high school education. The earnings supplement for transportation students went from over $6,000 (four years after graduation) to under $5,000 (seven years after graduation) as traditional high school students began to catch up.

“Students who go into construction are making more than we would otherwise expect, and quite a bit more, for at least the first seven years after high school,” Ecton said. “But they also go to college a lot less often than we might otherwise expect. I think that’s a difficult compromise. Different students, families and counselors might make different decisions here.”

Ecton’s main point is that not all professional and technical education is created equal. “We wanted to understand if certain career paths paid more,” he said. “It’s not a simple yes or no answer. It depends on which area you enter.”

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Higher earnings for Massachusetts vocational high school students by specialty
The annual earnings advantage of CTE concentrators over traditional high school students with similar demographics and academic backgrounds. These numbers compare high school students who graduated between 2009 and 2011. Source: Figure 5 of Heterogeneity in High School Career and Technical Education Outcomes. Educational evaluation and policy analysis. Aug 2022.

In Massachusetts, every career field showed at least some advantage over a traditional high school education—either in terms of higher income, going to advanced college, or both. But Ecton says that’s not a reason for everyone to pursue a college degree.

“For a student who already has a very good academic record, who is already on a clear path to attending and completing a bachelor’s degree, I think there is less clear evidence that CTE will necessarily help those students,” he said to Ekton.

“I think CTE can be really useful for students who are less engaged in a traditional classroom in high school,” Ecton said. “If I were to advise a student whether or not to become a CTE concentrator, I would ask one question: How else are you going to spend your time if not as a CTE student?”

If the alternative is a study hall or exam prep class for struggling students, which Ecton says is often the case, CTE can be more engaging and help provide clear options for students after high school. Ecton highlighted how ninth graders at Massachusetts vocational schools take courses in a variety of career fields, from construction to healthcare to business, learning about many areas before deciding on a specialization.

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The rosy experiences of professional and technical students in Massachusetts may not apply elsewhere. The state has a well-educated population with high-tech and healthcare workforce needs. And Massachusetts has invested heavily in quality vocational training programs for high school students. A cost-benefit analysis released in September 2022 found the public gains between $56,500 and $113,900 in increased revenue and reduced welfare spending for each Massachusetts vocational student. But in Connecticut, the benefits were much smaller — only about $10,000. New Jersey and Delaware are running more expensive vocational training programs, and more analysis is needed to see if they’re paying off.

But even in Massachusetts, the results are mixed. The Pioneer Institute found that a Boston vocational high school didn’t bring such brilliant benefits to students.

“Sometimes in CTE we see a legacy program that has been around for a very long time,” said Florida State’s Ecton. “But maybe it’s not about taking students straight out of high school to either college or a good-paying job. But we keep these programs because they’ve been here forever. They may even be popular with students. I would really encourage schools to do the same analysis and make sure they see at least some positive results in all of their different student study programs.”

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