Career and Technical Education Is on the Rise—Do Students Benefit?

Career and Technical Education Is on the Rise—Do Students Benefit?

Students getting hands-on experience in a medical lab

This blog was adapted from the 2018 report Career and Technical Education: Current Policy, Prominent Programs, and Evidence by Rachel Rosen, Mary Visher, and Katie Beal, and published by MDRC.

Our mission at the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network is to increase the amount of causal research on CTE and encourage the use of research in program design and implementation. But why this emphasis now? What is the urgency?

Interest in CTE has experienced a resurgence over the last decade, as the global economy has grown increasingly competitive and too many students graduate underprepared for well-paying twenty-first-century jobs. The education and workforce sectors—together and separately—have sought to address these challenges and better prepare students for viable economic futures. The result has been many new and innovative programs at both the high school and college levels. These programs provide students with technical training for specific career fields, general training for the workplace, and work-based learning opportunities for connecting with employers and gaining real-world experience.

Yet despite the growing popularity of CTE programs, the evidence base to support them has lagged. What's more, the evidence that is available varies in quality.

The most rigorous research study design is a randomized controlled trial (RCT). These studies are considered the "gold standard" because they randomly assign participants to either a program (intervention) group or a comparison (control) group. This process ensures that any changes in participants’ outcomes are caused by the intervention, as opposed to other factors.

In the CTE field, only a few RCTs provide causal evidence. For instance, rigorous studies show strong support for career academies, which have been found to have long-term impacts on earnings, particularly for young men. In addition, RCTs of early college high schools (some of which are CTE-focused) have found positive impacts on high school graduation and the earning of postsecondary credentials.

The next most rigorous studies use quasi-experimental designs (QEDs), which seek to mimic the properties of randomized studies by creating groups that are plausibly comparable. One of the strongest examples is a regression discontinuity design study (RDD), which limits analyses to students who fall just to one side or another of an arbitrary "cut point" (for example, a test score or a birth date). One RDD study of a regional vocational high school model found positive impacts on high school graduation for students who enrolled in these schools.

Other QED models include comparative interrupted time series and propensity-score matching studies, which rely on researchers to create comparison groups based on matching observable student or school characteristics. The reliability of the evidence from these kinds of studies depends on the strength of the matches researchers can make. 

Finally, the weakest evidence comes from observational studies, which examine whether there is an association between characteristics and outcomes, but not a causal relationship. Although these studies have weaker research designs, they have value. If multiple studies find similar results in different settings and time periods, then collectively they may provide strong evidence of a relationship or trend.

Much CTE research is observational. For example, several studies have found a relationship between taking CTE courses and increased high school graduation rates, particularly among low-income students, who tend to be overrepresented in CTE programs. Taking CTE courses in high school has also been associated with higher wages. While none of these findings was produced through an RCT or QED, the volume of similar findings across different settings and populations does suggest that positive student outcomes are strongly associated with participation in these programs.

Along with CTE's rise in popularity is a growing consensus that it can improve economic mobility by increasing the number of students who earn career-focused credentials and land better-paying jobs. CTE has broad support from educators, workforce policymakers, and regional and national employers and is one of the few policy areas that enjoys bipartisan interest. In turn, this strong support has fostered entrepreneurial innovation in CTE.

Today's CTE programs take many forms, depending on the institutions that design and deliver them, the populations they serve, and the numbers and types of components they incorporate. The field now needs to provide causal evidence of the effectiveness of these different programs and models in producing positive outcomes for students. The federal investment in the CTE Research Network could not be more timely as we work to develop the knowledge needed to guide and improve CTE for the next generation.

Learn more about the MDRC research team participating in the CTE Research Network and the focus of their work.