Panel Paper: The Causal Impact of Attending a Career Technical High School on Student Achievement, High-School Graduation and College Enrollment

Thursday, November 8, 2018
8212 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Shaun Dougherty, Eric Brunner and Stephen L. Ross, University of Connecticut

Observational research has documented the association between participating in CTE and academic and labor-market outcomes, yet only a few studies can make causal claims about the impact of CTE participation (one true experiment, Kemple & Willner, 2008, and one quasi-experiment, Dougherty, 2015). Many of these studies demonstrate that students with CTE training in high school enjoy higher probabilities of employment and higher subsequent wages (Bishop & Mane, 2006; Meer, 2007; Neumark & Rothstein, 2006). The main concern with the non-experimental literature relates to the fact that, though students enrolled in CTE programs and more traditional high school settings may seem comparable on observable characteristics, they clearly differ in their choice of whether to pursue CTE in high school, and so may also differ in other unobserved ways. Since most CTE programs allow students to select in and out freely, it is hard to obtain unbiased estimates of the effect of CTE participation. This research adds to the very small research base that can make causal claims about the impact of CTE participation in high school on student outcomes.

We leverage the conditions for a naturally occurring regression discontinuity design (RDD) to estimate the effects of being admitted to and attending one of 16 specialized high schools in Connecticut (CTHSS) where all students have access to and participate in CTE. In contrast to most high schools that offer only a few CTE programs and only some students participate, these schools provide greater choice of CTE programs in an environment where all students pursue at least one CTE program. We use school application data from over 54,000 students who entered high school in the fall years of 2006 through 2015 and follow them longitudinally through the state administrative data and the National School Clearinghouse.

The application data support the use of a fuzzy regression discontinuity design that we employ to estimate the causal effects of being admitted to and attending one of these schools on students’ probability of completing high school and enrolling in postsecondary education. Our findings suggest that marginal students who were induced into attending a CTHSS school are 7-10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, and 3-5 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than their similar peers who applied but just missed being admitted. Results are robust to various specifications. Tests for heterogeneous effects suggest that though boys may see larger benefits to high school completion, girls see larger effects for college going. Importantly, despite serving students in both urban and suburban settings, results appear to be similar for students residing in different contexts. Our results suggest that access to specialized high schools that provide greater choice of CTE offerings, and different learning environments may improve educational attainment and persistence among youth interested in CTE.