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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

January 2018


What does the research say about the effectiveness of career and technical education (CTE) programs on student outcomes (e.g., graduation rates, employment rates, and completion rates)?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the effectiveness of career and technical education (CTE) programs on student outcomes. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to completion of CTE programs, high school graduation rates, and employment rates. For details on the databases and sources, keywords and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Bishop, J. H., & Mane, F. (2004). The impacts of career-technical education on high school labor market success. Economics of Education Review, 23(4), 381–402. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The paper assesses the effects of offering upper-secondary students the opportunity to pursue vocational education in high school on completion rates and subsequent earnings. Analysis of international cross-section data found that nations enrolling a large proportion of upper-secondary students in vocational programs have significantly higher school attendance rates and higher upper-secondary completion rates. Test scores at age 15 and college attendance rates for people over age 20 were not reduced. Analysis of 12 years of longitudinal data found that those who devoted about one-sixth of their time in high school to occupation-specific vocational courses earned at least 12% extra one year after graduating and about 8% extra seven years later (holding attitudes and ability in 8th grade, family background and college attendance constant). This was true both for students who did and did not pursue post-secondary education. Computer courses had particularly large effects on earnings eight years after graduating.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Brand, B., Valent, A., & Browning, A. (2013). How career and technical education can help students be college and career ready: A primer. Washington, DC: College and Career Readiness and Success Center, American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “If educators and policymakers are to make good on the national commitment to graduate more students from high school prepared to face postsecondary challenges, schools must continue to improve career technical education (CTE), ensuring that students have access to high-quality pathways to success. This brief provides an overview of the evolution of CTE in the U.S., reviews what CTE looks like in practice, and highlights issues CTE faces in the field that must be overcome for it to become an impactful and wide-reaching strategy for preparing students for postsecondary success. It also discusses the importance of these programs for allowing students the opportunities to acquire the competencies required in today’s workplace, and to learn about different careers by experiencing work and workplaces.”

Castellano, M., Sundell, K., Overman, L. T., & Aliaga, O. A. (2012). Do career and technical education programs of study improve student achievement? Preliminary analyses from a rigorous longitudinal study. International Journal of Educational Reform, 21(2), 98–118. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This longitudinal study examines the impact of programs of study on high school academic and technical achievement. Two districts are participating in experimental and quasi-experimental strands of the study. This article describes the sample selection, baseline characteristics, study design, career and technical education and academic achievement results of 9th and 10th graders, and qualitative findings from site visits. Few differences existed across groups in 9th grade, but by the end of 10th grade, students’ test scores, academic grade point averages, and progress to graduation tended to be better for the students in programs of study (i.e., treatment students) than for control/comparison students. Qualitative results suggest that treatment schools have created school cultures around programs of study that appear to explain improved engagement and achievement.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Cellini, S. R. (2006). Smoothing the transition to college? The effect of Tech-Prep programs on educational attainment. Economics of Education Review, 25(4), 394–411. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “By promoting articulation agreements between high schools and community colleges, Tech-Prep programs aim to smooth the transition to college for the middle majority of US high school students. This paper employs a family fixed effects approach to assess the effectiveness of Tech-Prep programs in increasing educational attainment. Using data from six rounds of the 1997 NLSY and controlling for both selection and within-family spillovers, I find that Tech-Prep programs help participants complete high school and encourage enrollment in two-year colleges. On the other hand, these gains come at the expense of four-year college enrollment, suggesting that Tech-Prep programs may divert students from four-year to two-year colleges in the years immediately following high school. While Tech-Prep programs appear to increase overall educational attainment, they may be falling short of their goal of promoting college enrollment among the middle majority.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Dougherty, S. M. (2016). Career and technical education in high school: Does it improve student outcomes? Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Until the late 1990s, ‘vocational education’ in traditional trades such as carpentry, cosmetology, and auto mechanics was often the presumptive high school placement for low-performing students considered ill-suited for college. However, in the past two decades, policymakers and educators have reconsidered what is now referred to as ‘Career and Technical Education’ (CTE). Done right, secondary CTE provides preparation and skill building for careers in fields such as information technology, health services, and advanced manufacturing, in which many positions require a postsecondary education. While some high school CTE students do enter the workforce without additional training, many secondary CTE programs feed participants into professional certification or associate degree programs at two- or four-year colleges. The goal of today’s CTE is simple: to connect students with growing industries in the American economy and to give them the skills and training required for long-term success. Unfortunately, little is known about this ‘new vocationalism.’ This study uses a rich set of data from the Arkansas Research Center (ARC) to follow three cohorts—more than 100,000 students—from eighth grade, through high school, and into college and/or the workforce. It asks: (1) Which students are taking CTE courses? Which courses—and how many of them—are they taking?; (2) Does greater exposure to CTE improve education and employment outcomes (high school graduation, college enrollment, employment status, and wages)?; and (3) Does CTE ‘concentration’ (taking a sequence of three or more courses in an occupationally aligned ‘program of study’) have benefits for students? Do certain students benefit more than others? This study is focused on Arkansas for several reasons. First, it is one of just five states that link education and workforce data such that questions about the efficacy of secondary CTE can be addressed. Second, it recently overhauled state policies to improve career readiness and align CTE programs with the labor market. Third, per capita income is among the lowest in the nation, and residents stand to benefit both educationally and economically from effective CTE. While no single state is truly representative of the United States as a whole, as a racially and geographically diverse state facing a number of common economic and social challenges, Arkansas can serve as a useful (and practical) test case for examining CTE. This report is organized as follows: Section One summarizes the history of secondary CTE, and reviews the scant existing research on it. Section Two describes the present study’s data and methods, and also provides context specifically for Arkansas. Section Three presents the results, and Section Four considers the implications and offers recommendations for policymakers. The results suggest that policymakers and education leaders nationwide should invest more heavily (and strategically) in high school CTE.”

Dougherty, S. M. (2016). The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: Causal evidence from Massachusetts. Education Finance and Policy. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Earlier work demonstrates that career and technical education (CTE) can provide long-term financial benefits to participants, yet few have explored potential academic impacts with none in the era of high-stakes accountability. In this paper, I investigate the causal impact of participating in a specialized high school-based CTE delivery system on high-school persistence, completion, earning professional certifications, and standardized test scores with a focus on individuals from low-income families, a group that is overrepresented in CTE and high-school non-completers. Using administrative data from Massachusetts I combine OLS with a regression-discontinuity design that capitalizes on admissions data at three schools that are oversubscribed. All estimates suggest that participating in a high-quality CTE program boosts the probability of on-time graduation from high school by seven to ten percentage-points for higher income students and suggestively larger effects for their lower income peers, and for students on the margin of being admitted to oversubscribed schools. This work informs an understanding of the potential impact of specific CTE program participation on the accumulation of human capital even in a high-stakes policy environment. This evidence of a productive CTE model in Massachusetts may inform the current policy dialogue related to improving career pathways and readiness.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Hemelt, S. W., Lenard, M. A., & Paeplow, C. G. (2017). Building better bridges to life after high school: Experimental evidence on contemporary career academies. Working Paper 176. Washington, DC: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Modern career academies aim to prepare students for college and the labor market. This paper examines the profile of students entering such academies in one school district and estimates causal effects of participation in one of the district’s well-regarded academies on a range of high school and college outcomes. Using rich administrative data from the Wake County Public School System, we find that students who enter contemporary career academies are generally higher performing than their non-academy peers. Further, we document that Hispanic students and those with limited English proficiency are somewhat less likely to enroll than other students, even after we control for differences in prior academic achievement and high school choice sets. Exploiting the lottery-based admissions process of one technology-focused academy, we then estimate causal effects of participation in a career academy on high school attendance, achievement, and graduation, as well as college-going. We find that enrollment in this academy increases the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment each by about 8 percentage points, with the attainment gains concentrated among male students. We also find that academy participation reduces 9th grade absences but has little influence on academic performance, AP course-taking, or AP exam success during high school. Analysis of candidate mechanisms suggests that roughly one fifth of the overall high school graduation effect can be attributed to improved student engagement in high school.”

Jacobson, L., & Mokher, C. (2014). Florida study of career and technical education. Final Report. Alexandria, VA: CNA Corporation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “A key goal of the ‘Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006’ (‘Perkins IV’) is to ensure career and technical education (CTE) programs are widely available for preparing high school and college students for ‘high skill, high wage, or high demand occupations in current or emerging professions’ (‘Perkins IV,’ 2006, Sec. 2-1). A related goal is to support schools in overcoming ‘geographic and other barriers affecting rural students and special populations’ (Sec. 135-c-10). ‘Perkins IV’ goals also include developing programs of study incorporating ‘rigorous and challenging’ academic skills as well as technical skills, and to link CTE programs at high schools and community colleges with bachelor’s degree programs at four-year colleges. This study examines whether outcomes for CTE students—high school graduation, achievement levels, postsecondary enrollment, and employment and earnings—reflect a positive impact from CTE participation. This study uses data tracking virtually all Florida high students who entered grade 9 in 1996 as they progressed from high school to postsecondary education and the workforce through the end of 2007. The analysis examines differences between CTE concentrators and nonconcentrators who reached grade 12 for the following outcomes: (1) High school course taking, including the completion of an academic curriculum called the ‘New Basics’ that is required for admission to public four-year colleges in Florida; (2) Transitions after high school to college or the workforce; (3) College course taking, including enrollment in and completion of CTE and remedial courses; (4) Attainment of postsecondary credentials (certificates or degrees); and (5) Employment and earnings after leaving school”

Kemple, J. J. (2008). Career Academies: Long-term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Established more than 30 years ago, Career Academies have become a widely used high school reform initiative that aims to keep students engaged in school and prepare them for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. Typically serving between 150 and 200 students from grades 9 or 10 through grade 12, Career Academies are organized as small learning communities, combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, and establish partnerships with local employers to provide work-based learning opportunities. There are estimated to be more than 2,500 Career Academies operating around the country.”

Since 1993, MDRC has been conducting a uniquely rigorous evaluation of the Career Academy approach that uses a random assignment research design in a diverse group of nine high schools across the United States. Located in medium- and large-sized school districts, the schools confront many of the educational challenges found in low-income urban settings. The participating Career Academies were able to implement and sustain the core features of the approach, and they served a cross-section of the student populations in their host schools. This report describes how Career Academies influenced students’ labor market prospects and postsecondary educational attainment in the eight years following their expected graduation. The results are based on the experiences of more than 1,400 young people, approximately 85 percent of whom are Hispanic or African-American.

Key Findings

  • The Career Academies produced sustained earnings gains that averaged 11 percent (or $2,088) more per year for Academy group members than for individuals in the non-Academy group—a $16,704 boost in total earnings over the eight years of follow-up (in 2006 dollars).
  • These labor market impacts were concentrated among young men, a group that has experienced a severe decline in real earnings in recent years. Through a combination of increased wages, hours worked, and employment stability, real earnings for young men in the Academy group increased by $3,731 (17 percent) per year—or nearly $30,000 over eight years.
  • Overall, the Career Academies served as viable pathways to a range of postsecondary education opportunities, but they do not appear to have been more effective than options available to the non-Academy group. More than 90 percent of both groups graduated from high school or received a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and half completed a postsecondary credential.
  • The Career Academies produced an increase in the percentage of young people living independently with children and a spouse or partner. Young men also experienced positive impacts on marriage and being custodial parents.”

Levesque, K., Laird, J., Hensley, E., Choy, S. P., Cataldi, E. F., & Hudson, L. (2008). Career and technical education in the United States: 1990 to 2005. Statistical Analysis Report. NCES 2008-035. Jessup, MD: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This report is the fourth in a series of volumes published periodically by NCES to describe the condition of vocational education (now called ‘career and technical education’ or CTE) in the United States during the period from 1990 through 2005. Based on data from 11 NCES surveys, the report describes CTE providers, offerings, participants, faculty, and associated outcomes, focusing on secondary, postsecondary, and adult education. The report is organized into three main chapters addressing, where possible, the following key questions related to CTE at the secondary, postsecondary, and adult levels: (1) What institutions provide CTE? (2) What is offered? (3) Who participates and what courses and majors do they select? (4) Who teaches CTE? and (5) What are the outcomes associated with CTE participation, including academic attainment, postsecondary education, and employment and earnings? A summary chapter provides selected findings from the report, and compares key characteristics across the three education levels.”

Neumark, D., & Rothstein, D. (2006). School-to-career programs and transitions to employment and higher education. Economics of Education Review, 25(4), 374–393. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The 1994 federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act (STWOA) provided more than $1.5 billion over 5 years to support increased career preparation activities in the country‚Äôs public schools. A new longitudinal data source with rich information on school-to-career (STC) programs—the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97)—provides previously unparalleled opportunities to study the effectiveness of STC programs. This paper uses the NLSY97 to assess the effects of STC programs on transitions to employment and higher education among youths leaving high school, with a focus on attempting to estimate the causal effects of this participation given possible non-random selection of youths into STC programs.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Stern, D., Dayton, C., & Raby, M. (2010). Career academies: A proven strategy to prepare high school students for college and careers. Berkeley, CA: Career Academy Support Network, Graduate School of Education, University of California. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Career academies, after more than four decades of development and three decades of evaluation, have been found by a conclusive random assignment study to be effective in improving outcomes for students during and after high school. Career academies have therefore become the most durable and best-tested component of a high school reform strategy to prepare students for both college and careers. The number of career academies has been expanding rapidly, in part because academies have been found to be effective, and in part because they embody ideas promoted by several major high school reform movements. This paper describes the growth and evolution of career academies, reviews the evaluation evidence, explains how career academies reflect widely accepted principles of high school reform, and considers prospects for the future.”

Visher, M. G., & Stern, D. (2015). New pathways to careers and college: Examples, evidence, and prospects. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The debate about high school reform is increasingly focused on the role of career-technical education (CTE) in helping to prepare ‘all’ students for success in ‘both’ postsecondary education and the workforce. The stand-alone vocational courses into which high school students with lower academic achievement were often channeled are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, programs that merge CTE, rigorous academic coursework, and career exploration opportunities, while creating clear pathways through high school, college, and beyond, are gaining momentum. This report describes some of the most prominent of these ‘pathway’ models, identifies localities where the approach has gained the most traction, discusses the underlying principles that characterize the most promising programs, and briefly presents the evidence of their potential to make a difference. The report concludes with a set of recommendations for future investment to strengthen and scale such programs.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Association for Career & Technical Education Research –

From the website: “The Association for Career and Technical Education Research (ACTER) (formerly AVERA) was organized in 1966. It is a professional association for scholars and others with research interests in the relationship between education and work. Through participation in the ACTER members have the opportunity to collaborate on research projects of vital interest to the profession, present research findings to national audiences, and receive recognition for service and scholarship in career and technical education.

The purposes of ACTER are to:

To stimulate research and development activities related to career and technical education.

To stimulate the development of training programs designed to prepare persons for responsibilities in research in career and technical education.

To foster cooperative effort in research and development activities within the total program of career and technical education.

To facilitate the dissemination of research findings and the diffusion of knowledge.”

The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education –

From the website: “The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) is the nation’s primary agent for research in the broad field of CTE and a primary source of professional development and technical assistance for CTE professionals, particularly at state and local leadership levels.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • career and technical education

  • descriptor:“career education” employment

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.