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U.S. Department of Education and Smith Richardson Foundation fund Youth Policy Lab Career and Technical Education study

June 2, 2020

What are the effects of high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) on students’ future career and economic prospects? It is a question that is increasingly important as students face insecurity in the labor force and the so-called “college-for-all” approach is showing real limitations. Yet there is a lack of rigorous empirical research on the efficacy of high school CTE programs.

Brian Jacob, Youth Policy Lab faculty co-director & founder, and Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy and professor of economics at the Ford School, will lead a team over the next two years to estimate the extent to which participation in CTE leads to better (or worse) outcomes, thanks to funding from Smith Richardson Foundation and a grant from the US Department of Education’ Institute of Educational Sciences.

The analysis will compare the postsecondary education and labor market outcomes of Michigan high school students who participated in high school CTE programs with students who did not participate in CTE. Few reliable estimates exist of how well these programs prepare students for postsecondary education or the workforce, or if effects vary across students. CTE programs cover a wide range of industries – from IT to marketing, sales and service, to construction trades – and it is likely that costs and benefits of each similarly vary.

Consequently, CTE is a hotly debated topic. Advocates claim that along with providing students valuable hard and soft skills directly relevant to the labor market, CTE can also motivate students to pursue additional education – either by completing high school or by enrolling in specific postsecondary programs. Conversely, critics argue that CTE serves to track low-achieving and/or racial minority students into educational programs that do not prepare them for work beyond low-wage, entry-level positions.

“We hope our project can begin to fill the knowledge gap by shedding light on the relationship between CTE programs in Michigan and important outcomes like enrollment in and completion of postsecondary education, employment, and earnings. Ours will be one of the only studies to date that links detailed CTE programmatic data with administrative data on these outcomes,” Jacob says.

“States, districts, and even schools exercise a great deal of control over CTE compared to other aspects of education, so these findings can provide highly actionable information to administrators who must decide which CTE programs to offer and how these programs are to be funded,” says Project Manager Jeremy Guardiola.

The state of Michigan currently allocates state funding in a way intended to encourage the expansion of CTE programs that provide the greatest economic benefits for students. Yet state evaluations are limited and do not include CTE participants’ post-program wage record data to identify the best options.  By discerning the programs with the highest associated returns, the results could help schools direct their finite resources towards CTE programs with the greatest chances of improving economic opportunity. 

Brian A. Jacob is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Education Policy and professor of economics at the Ford School, and is co-director of the Youth Policy Lab. He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Brian came to Michigan from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; he previously served as a policy analyst in the NYC Mayor’s Office and taught middle school in East Harlem. His primary fields of interest are labor economics, program evaluation, and the economics of education. Brian’s current research focuses on urban school reform, with a particular emphasis on standards and accountability initiatives. At the Ford School, he teaches “Economics of Education” and classes focused on education policy. In 2008, Jacob received the David N. Kershaw Prize, an award given every two years to honor persons who, at under the age of 40, have made a distinguished contribution to the field of public policy. He received a BA from Harvard University in 1992 and a PhD in public policy from the University of Chicago.

The Youth Policy Lab helps community and government agencies make better decisions by measuring what really works. We’re data experts who believe that government can and must do better for the people of Michigan. We’re also parents and community members who dream of a brighter future for all of our children. At the Lab, we’re working to make that dream a reality by strengthening programs that address some of our most pressing social challenges. We recognize that the wellbeing of youth is intricately linked to the wellbeing of families and communities, so we engage in work that impacts all age ranges. Using rigorous evaluation design and data analysis, we’re working closely with our partners to build a future where public investments are based on strong evidence, so all Michiganders have a pathway to prosperity.