New Report Finds Positive Effects of Career and Technical Education on High School Student Achievement, College Readiness, and Postsecondary Employment

American Institutes for Research team conducts systematic review of 20 years of research

A new report finds that students who participated in career and technical education (CTE) programs in high school were more likely to be employed after high school than similar classmates who did not participate in CTE. The report, “What We Know About the Impact of Career and Technical Education: A Systematic Review of the Research,” was produced by experts from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) through the federally funded CTE Research Network

CTE participation is growing around the country. According to the most recent data (2019), nearly 85 percent of public and private high school graduates earned at least one credit in a CTE course. Until recently, however, little was known about the causal effects of CTE on students. The report’s literature review and synthesis used the What Works Clearinghouse definition of causal CTE studies to provide an important summary of the most rigorous evidence from the past 20 years. Findings from the synthesis of 28 studies include:

  • CTE has statistically significant positive impacts on several high school outcomes, such as students’ academic achievement, high school completion, employability skills, and college readiness. There is no discernible impact on student discipline or attendance.
  • Students who take CTE are more likely to enroll in 2-year colleges compared to those who do not take CTE. However, no differences were found for enrollment in 4-year colleges and progressing in college. There is also no impact on the likelihood of completing a college degree.
  • Those who take CTE courses in high school are also more likely to be employed after high school than those who did not. However, CTE course-takers had similar earnings as those who did not take CTE.
  • The Network team found no statistically significant negative impacts of CTE participation.

“Our review makes it clear that CTE programs have many positive impacts for high school students, but it is less clear if these programs affect postsecondary outcomes,” said Katherine Hughes, a principal researcher at AIR and director and principal investigator of the CTE Research Network. “Given these findings, practitioners and policymakers may want to consider how CTE can be better designed to prepare students for postsecondary options and ensure programs are offered in fields that lead to living-wage employment.”

The CTE Research Network was launched in 2018 through a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the independent research, evaluation, and statistics arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Led by AIR, the goal of the network is to help address a lack of evidence on CTE programs and to encourage and train researchers to examine how these programs influence student outcomes. Another IES grant, awarded to AIR in 2023, extends the CTE Research Network for five years.

As part of the initial grant, the Network conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of the research literature spanning the past 20 years to answer the following research questions:  

  1. Which types of CTE programs have been the focus of studies that make causal claims?
  2. What is the impact of CTE program participation on student outcomes? Specifically, does CTE have impacts on students’ secondary-level outcomes, their postsecondary education outcomes, and their employment outcomes?
  3. When examining the combination of CTE program types and relevant outcomes, for which combinations are there gaps in the causal research?

Explore the full report on the CTE Research Network website. Visit the AIR website to learn more about our work exploring how CTE programs can prepare students for college and career success. 

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