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Constructing a profile of students who focus on career and technical education in high school: Who are they and do they benefit?

Profile of career and technical education students

By Joni Wackwitz
June 28, 2021

Career and technical education programs are designed to equip students for success after high school. These programs pave the way for careers in fields such as engineering, manufacturing, business, health science, and information technology, and often include opportunities to gain work-based experience and earn industry-recognized credentials.

In Indiana and Minnesota, career and technical education programs are intended to serve as pathways to both postsecondary education and employment. A new study from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest, conducted in partnership with the Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance, provides insight into Indiana and Minnesota students who focused on career and technical education in high school and their college and workforce outcomes.

>> Read and download the full report.

Understanding career and technical education concentrators

Both Indiana and Minnesota used a multiagency approach to develop career and technical education course sequences that support a range of college and career pathways. At the time of the study, Indiana offered 64 pathways across 12 career clusters, and Minnesota offered 79 pathways across 16 career clusters grouped within six career fields.

State policymakers, as well as members of the Midwest Career Readiness Research Alliance, wanted to know more about the characteristics of students taking career and technical education in high school and whether doing so was associated with students’ later college enrollment, degree attainment, and employment and earnings. To provide this information, REL Midwest researchers analyzed data for students who graduated from Indiana public high schools between 2014 and 2018 and students who graduated from Minnesota public high schools between 2013 and 2018.

As part of the study, researchers classified graduates into four groups based on their completion of career and technical education courses in high school:

  • Concentrators completed multiple career and technical education courses in a single career pathway or field (six or more semester credits in one career pathway in Indiana or at least 150 hours of instruction in one career field in Minnesota).
  • Explorers completed the same number of career and technical education courses as concentrators but across more than one career pathway (Indiana) or field (Minnesota).
  • Samplers completed fewer career and technical education courses (less than six semester credits in Indiana or less than 150 hours of instruction in Minnesota).
  • Nonparticipants did not complete any career and technical education courses.

For each group, researchers described graduates’ demographic and school characteristics and grade 8 standardized achievement scores. Next, researchers used a statistical procedure to match concentrators and explorers with samplers and nonparticipants who had similar characteristics and grade 8 achievement levels and had attended the same schools. The researchers then compared the matched groups’ college enrollment and completion rates, employment rates, and annual earnings.

What did the study find?

About one in five public high school graduates in Indiana and nearly half of graduates in Minnesota were career and technical education concentrators.

  • In Indiana, 21 percent of graduates were concentrators, 8 percent were explorers, 48 percent were samplers, and 22 percent were nonparticipants.
  • In Minnesota, 44 percent of graduates were concentrators, 15 percent were explorers, 24 percent were samplers, and 17 percent were nonparticipants.

In both states:

  • Male high school graduates, graduates who received special education services, and graduates who were not proficient in reading in grade 8 were more likely to be concentrators.
  • Within one year of high school, concentrators had lower overall college enrollment rates than similar samplers and nonparticipants, after adjusting for other factors. However, this finding mainly reflects enrollment in four-year colleges; concentrators were slightly more likely to enroll in two-year colleges.
  • Within five years of high school, concentrators were more likely to attain an associate’s degree and less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than similar samplers and nonparticipants, after adjusting for other factors.
  • During the five years after high school, concentrators had higher employment rates and annual earnings than similar samplers and nonparticipants, after adjusting for other factors. However, the study did not examine employment rates and earnings in later years, when graduates of four-year colleges would likely enter the workforce.

Several other study limitations should be considered when interpreting these findings. See the full report for more information.

What can we take away from the findings?

The study’s findings can be used to inform policies and practices to strengthen career and technical education programs and to support students who are interested in these courses.

  • State education agency staff may want to explore why students with different characteristics participate in career and technical education to varying degrees. Possible explanations include different workforce needs in different parts of the state, different interests among various types of students, or differential student access to a range of career and technical education courses. Where differential access is an issue, staff may want to assist providers in expanding their course offerings or requirements.
  • High school teachers and guidance counselors can use the findings to help students make informed choices about which courses best align with their interests and aspirations. The differences between concentrators and similar samplers and nonparticipants may reflect differences in students’ goals. Teachers and counselors may want to share that many high school students who concentrate on a career-oriented course of study go on to enroll in college, earn a degree, and succeed in the workforce.
  • Researchers can build on the study by looking at outcomes over a longer period or for individual career pathways and fields. For example, a study of longer term outcomes could explore whether differences in employment and earnings reverse as graduates who entered four-year colleges attain degrees and enter the workforce.

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Author information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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