How career and technical education affects students' future wages

Over two years ago, we at Fordham published one of the first studies that examined the potential long-term benefits of career and technical education in high school. Conducted by Shaun Dougherty, the study found that students who “concentrate” their CTE coursework in one area experienced multiple benefits, such as a higher likelihood of graduating and higher wages compared to non-concentrators.

A new study by Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange found virtue in a related path—taking more specialized or upper level CTE courses, versus an assortment of introductory courses, as non-concentrators tend to do. The analysts used detailed longitudinal transcript and labor market information for a cohort of respondents in the National Longitudinal Survey ‘97 (NSLY97) to glean the benefits of CTE courses on longer-term outcomes. The NSLY includes a rich set of measures that can be used as individual controls for student background and ability, as well as for location and cohort effects.

The dataset includes about 9,000 individuals who were between the ages of twelve and eighteen when they were first interviewed in 1997. The survey is representative of all American youth at that time period and respondents had been followed annually to glean information on their educational attainment, labor market experience, and family formation, among other areas. High school transcripts were also collected from respondents' high schools; in total, transcript data were collected for over 6,000 respondents. Courses were coded to identify “low” and “high” level: Low-level courses are those classified as the “first course” on transcripts, while upper-level courses include those beyond the introductory level, such as “second or later courses,” “specialty courses” or “co-op/work experience.” The wage analysis was restricted to a “wage sample” of 3,708 students whom analysts determined had entered the labor market and had a valid wage record.

Kreisman and Stange found that more vocational courses were associated with higher wages, on the order of 1.8–2.0 percent for each year of specialized/upper level vocational coursework. In fact, when separating vocational coursework into higher and lower levels, they found that wage gains were driven entirely by upper-level courses, largely in technical fields and among non-college graduates. There were no discernible wage gains when it came to taking an additional introductory level CTE course.

Digging into various CTE strands, Kreisman and Stange determined that wage gains were driven by Transportation & Industry (including construction trades, mechanics and repair, transportation, and production), Business & Management (including business management, services, and marketing), and Health Care. Next, they found little to no evidence that CTE coursework decreased the likelihood of college graduation, nor that the monetary value of the courses are explained away by other factors. Specifically, they wrote, “while wage gains associated with non-vocational courses (core and electives) are entirely explained by college enrollment, wage gains from upper level vocational courses are unaffected by controlling for college enrollment and completion, suggesting that these courses do in fact have real value in the labor market.” That’s terrific news. Finally, through a series of “alternative hypothesis testing,” they found—to the relief of all who rightly shun the “tracking” history of old-school voc-ed—that students appear to positively sort themselves into CTE courses, as opposed to adults funneling low-ability students into them.

The bottom line is analogous to that of our seminal 2016 study, which is that the benefits of CTE coursework accrue to students who specialize, rather than to those who take a smattering of courses (typically introductory) in multiple areas. That means that CTE programs need to be built in a way that allows students to go into depth on any topic that is offered to them. Because, as the title of this report indicates, there’s greater value in depth than in breadth.

SOURCE: Daniel Kreisman and Kevin Stange, “Vocational and Career Tech Education in American High Schools: The Value of Depth Over Breadth,” Education Finance and Policy (June 2018).

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