Study: Taking Career and Technical Education Courses Later in High School Reduces Chances of Dropping Out and Improves On-Time Graduation

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High school students who complete career and technical education (CTE) courses during their junior and senior years are, on average, more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses, according to new research published today in the American Educational Research Journal, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

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High school students who complete career and technical education (CTE) courses during their junior and senior years are, on average, more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses, according to new research published today in the American Educational Research Journal, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

The study, conducted by Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his PhD student Jay Plasman, found that for each CTE course completed during the junior year in high school, a student was 1.5 percent more likely to graduate on time and 1.6 percent less likely to drop out. For each CTE course completed during the senior year, a student was 2.1 percent more likely to graduate on time and 1.8 percent less likely to drop out.

Gottfried and Plasman found that taking CTE courses during freshman and sophomore years had very little impact on on-time graduation and dropout rates. Taking CTE courses at any point during high school had no effect on whether students enrolled in college immediately after high school.

The study, which is the first to examine the timing of CTE courses and its relevance to on-time graduation and dropping out, builds on previous research that has shown CTE’s potential to boost high school completion.

“Our findings indicate that CTE course taking, particularly when later in high school, is linked to student persistence and success,” said Gottfried. “This lends support to the idea of further expansion of CTE coursework in high school.”

The findings come at a time when policymakers are increasingly focused on career and technical education. In recent years, a growing number of states have passed legislation aimed at promoting career education and training. In June, the president signed an executive order that called for expanded apprenticeship programs, including for high school students.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which would update the Perkins Act, the federal law
overseeing CTE programs in schools and colleges, for the first time since 2006. The bill is currently pending in Senate.

“The purpose of CTE courses is to engage students and show how school is relevant to both career and college,” said Gottfried. “As students get closer to the finish line, CTE courses become extremely relevant to them.”

CTE courses, which range from engineering to legal studies to health science, are designed to build a connection between high school curriculums, career development opportunities, and college-going behaviors. These courses emphasize applied learning that contributes to academic knowledge, problem-solving skills, and technical skills relating to specific occupations in the skilled trades, applied sciences, and technologies.

“Knowing how the timing of course taking can make a difference, states and schools can better structure and invest in CTE courses to create stronger high school outcomes,” Gottfried said.

For their study, Gottfried and Plasman used data collected in the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics on a nationally representative cohort of students. Students were observed in high school from the start of the second semester of their sophomore year through high school completion and entrance into college or the workforce. Student-level observations were linked to high school transcript data. In their analysis, Gottfried and Plasman controlled for factors relating to student demographics, academic history, and attitudes.

Gottfried and Plasman noted that the lack of a relationship between CTE and college enrollment was surprising, given that one purpose of high school CTE course taking is to smooth the transition to college.

“While we did not find a direct positive relationship between CTE and college-going behaviors, it is important to note that this also means there is no negative association,” said Plasman. “This implies that CTE courses hold essentially equivalent weight in promoting college-going as other courses in high school.”

“That said, this result does open the conversation for further assessment of the reach of high school CTE course taking, if policy makers and school leaders wish to more effectively rely on CTE to address college-going gaps,” said Plasman. “Our research suggests that the positive impact of CTE courses is currently limited to high school outcomes.”

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good.

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Tony Pals

Jonathan Fera
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