The Effects of Attending a Connecticut Technical High School: A Conversation With Dr. Steven Ross

The Effects of Attending a Connecticut Technical High School: A Conversation With Dr. Steven Ross

Kathy Hughes, Ph.D., director of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Research Network, sat down with Steven L. Ross, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Connecticut, to discuss a new study on stand-alone CTE high schools. Dr. Ross and his colleagues Eric Brunner, Ph.D., at the University of Connecticut and Shaun Dougherty, Ed.D., at Vanderbilt University examined the effects of attending the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS) on students’ education and labor force outcomes. The team, which is part of the CTE Research Network, recently published the study’s findings in a working paper.

Dr. Hughes: How is CTE provided in Connecticut, and is the system there unique?

Dr. Ross: CTE is provided in Connecticut both within traditional high schools as well as through a set of 16 stand-alone CTE high schools. All states, including Connecticut, provide CTE elective coursework in traditional high schools. Connecticut, however, is one of a limited number of states that have a system of stand-alone technical high schools that educate a substantial fraction of the state’s high school students. In Connecticut, 7 to 8 percent of all high school students attend CTHSS schools.

Dr. Hughes: Your research team conducted a study of CTHSS. What were the main research questions for the study, and what did you find?

Dr. Ross: The study evaluated the effects of gaining admission to one of the stand-alone Connecticut technical high schools. We compared student applicants who had just beat the threshold for admission to very similar students who had just missed the threshold. We did not find any impact of attending a CTHSS school on female students. For male students, however, we found that high school graduation rates increased by 10 percentage points and quarterly earnings by 30 percent. The effects on male students were broad based, affecting the outcomes of a wide array of students who applied to CTHSS. Further, the effects appear to be largely attributable to the stand-alone nature of the CTHSS schools as opposed to arising from simply providing more CTE course offerings.

Dr. Hughes: The study had some interesting findings related to college attendance. How do you interpret these findings, and are they cause for concern?

Dr. Ross: We did find that college attendance was lower among students who attended CTHSS high schools. Therefore, some of the earnings gains may have arisen simply because students were replacing college attendance with time spent in the labor market. However, even when we analyzed earnings at age 23 (after the traditional college years), we continued to find a similar 30 percent increase in quarterly earnings. Further, we found that attending a CTHSS high school also increased both attendance and standardized test scores. These in-school findings suggest that the CTHSS students were more engaged in high school and improved their general skills, meaning that the wage gains could persist well after any short-run effects of reduced college attendance.

Dr. Hughes: How might state policymakers in Connecticut and elsewhere use these findings?

Dr. Ross: First, this study is one of the few that provides convincing causal evidence of the effects of CTE on student outcomes. Further, to our knowledge, this study is the only one that examines a system where CTE is being provided at scale and where all the schools are evaluated as opposed to the evaluation of only a small number of volunteer schools. Therefore, this study provides strong evidence that expanded CTE opportunities could lead to substantial education and labor market gains for a large number of young male students.

Further, as noted above, Connecticut is one of a limited number of states that has a large system of stand-alone CTE-focused high schools. Our study suggests that the estimated effects largely arise from the stand-alone nature of CTHSS as opposed to the effects of expanding the number of CTE course offerings. However, most of the federal funding for CTE through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is used to expand CTE offerings in traditional high schools as opposed to providing more opportunities for stand-alone CTE education experiences. Our research supports a renewed emphasis on stand-alone CTE-focused high schools.