CTE & College-Going: One Advocate’s Read on the New Research

Last week, a new research study made its way through the edu-sphere, exciting a lot of CTE advocates. The AERA study – Linking the Timing of Career and Technical Education Coursetaking with High School Dropout and College-Going Behavior – validated some long-held truths about CTE, most notably that it boosts high school graduation rate.

In brief, the study found that taking a greater number of CTE courses was associated with a lower chance of dropping out, estimated at a decreased probability of dropout of 1.2% per CTE course completed across high school.  The probability of not dropping out – or probability of graduating – increases to 1.6% for every CTE course taken during 11th grade or 12th grade.

This jives well with existing data showing higher graduation rates for CTE concentrators – and survey data that shows CTE students are simply more satisfied with their educational experience than students not involved in CTE.

However, some of the coverage of this new study left me scratching my head. For example, Education Week’s blog was titled “Career and Tech Ed. Courses Don’t Boost Chances of College-Going, Study Finds focusing on the research finding that CTE completion is generally not linked to college going, except for a small positive (but statistically significant) link between 11th grade CTE coursetaking and both probability of enrollment within two years (0.8%) and probability of ever enrolling in postsecondary education (0.8%).

To quote the researchers: “These results imply that CTE may not be strongly associated with later college-going behaviors, but it also does not appear to have any negative influence on a student’s decision to pursue further education beyond high school.”

Now, for a CTE advocate, this is actually a game changer!

Consider the change in postsecondary enrollment over the last 25 years:

So, to summarize the chart above, the direct postsecondary enrollment rate for CTE concentrators increased by 28 percentage points between 1992 and 2004, while the postsecondary enrollment rates stayed stagnant for non-CTE students, which is a pretty huge jump. Now, we have new data showing that students engaging in CTE are just as likely to go on to college as those not taking CTE coursework! (As an FYI, the data shared above is from the same dataset used by AERA, NCES’ Education Longitudinal Study).

For years, CTE leaders have been talking the talk on the value of CTE, and developing policies, programs and frameworks to ensure our programs also walk the walk. The bottom line is that the quality of CTE programs and policies are on the rise and the data is showing a very positive upwards trajectory.

Some of the light criticism following this report is that we “still have work to do” to ensure CTE is a successful college preparation program. But, honestly, CTE hasn’t been designed with college preparation as its core purpose. Rather, it’s designed to support career readiness, with college readiness as a byproduct – and is now doing a pretty impressive job of offering equally rigorous pathways to high school students.

Look, I’m not sugarcoating the fact that we still have a long way to go to ensuring every CTE program is of the highest quality and provides meaningful post-high school pathways for every learner. And, I join the researchers in calling for more research on the impact of CTE, particularly around how CTE coursetaking impacts the drop out and completion rate for 9th grade students, who are often a higher drop out risk, something that has not received adequate focus. We also know college enrollment is not a particularly strong indicator of success, when compared to college retention and completion. But this study validates the impressive and difficult work undertaken by states and local leaders to up the rigor and quality of CTE programs and should be celebrated as such.

Kate Kreamer, Deputy Executive Director

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