Does CTE lessen the chances of dropping out?

A recent study on career and technical education examines whether taking “CTE” courses in high school has any relationship to dropping out of high school and, conversely, going to college.

Data come from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 and follows a cohort of public school students starting in the second half of their sophomore year (2002), surveying them again in both spring 2004 and spring 2006 when they would have been in their second year after high school graduation. Analysts attempt to control for a wide range of demographic, family, academic, attitudinal, and school-level variables, such as parental education, family income, poverty level of school, college expectations, etc. While they have loads of control variables, the study is nevertheless not causal, in part because it is not able to control for all of the unobserved factors that may make students who enroll in CTE different from those who do not.

The key finding is that taking more CTE courses is linked to a lower chance of dropping out of high school. Specifically, taking any CTE course in high school decreases the odds of dropping out by 1.2 percent for each course, so the more the better, but taking a CTE course in eleventh or twelfth grade is even more beneficial: those same odds decrease by 1.6 percent.

As for on-time graduation, there are positive benefits here too. Specifically, CTE boosts the probability of on-time graduation by 1.6 percent for every course completed, with courses taken in the later high school years showing more significant benefits. Obviously not all students progress through to the next grade (the two follow-up surveys ask them if they dropped out), so keep in mind that we are observing only the “survivors” as the years roll on.

Regarding college-going behavior, analysts found no relationship between CTE course-taking behavior and whether students went to college right after high school.

Last year we published a study by Shaun Dougherty that also found positive impacts of CTE. Specifically, concentrating (taking three or more CTE courses) increased the probability of graduating from high school and of enrolling in a two-year college. The current study did not find post-secondary impacts, which makes you wonder whether concentrating in CTE makes the difference. (Incidentally, our 2016 study also found that concentrators were more likely than non-concentrators to be employed and that low-income students see the most benefits from concentrating.)

Given the considerable interest in career and technical education by students, parents, teachers, researchers, and funders, it’s heartening to see a growing number of studies find positive results. One question that needs more empirical investigation: How can CTE programs be structured to better benefit both students and employers? Stay tuned in 2018 for what we have to say about that.

SOURCE: Michael A. Gottfried and Jay Stratte Plasman, “Linking the Timing of Career and Technical Education Coursetaking With High School Dropout and College-Going Behavior,” American Educational Research Journal (October 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.