Advanced vocational classes increase students’ early-career earnings


Advanced vocational classes increase students’ early-career earnings
Growing academic course requirements may crowd out advantageous career and technical studies

July 25, 2019—Students earn about 2 percent more annually for each advanced or upper-level voca­tional class they take in high school, according to an analysis of the schooling and workforce outcomes of over 4,000 early-career adults. In a new article for Education Next, authors Daniel Kreisman (Georgia State University) and Kevin Stange (University of Michigan) further report that, rather than deterring capable students from academic pursuits, vocational courses enable students to make better post-secondary enrollment decisions.

The authors use data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1998 to 2015, to examine how students’ choices to enroll in vocational courses in high school affect their subsequent college going, college completion, and labor-market participation. They look separately at the effects of taking low-level vocational courses, defined as courses that are the first in a sequence, and advanced vocational courses. This enables them to examine the effects of breadth (taking many courses in different fields) and of depth (specializing in particular field) for students pursuing vocational studies.

Among the key findings:

Vocational courses compete for time, money. Between 1990 and 2009, as the average number of academic credits that high-school students earned increased, the number of vocational credits dropped by 14 percent. This drop coincides with a 32-percent drop since 1985 in federal funding for such programs.

Advanced vocational classes benefit future earnings regardless of college attendance. Though low-level vocational courses are unrelated to wages, students who complete advanced vocational credits in high school earn higher wages as adults, with an increase of 2 percent for every high-level class taken. Unlike the wage premium associated with advanced academic course credits, the positive wage gains associated with upper-level vocational courses do not depend on whether a student attends college or not.

Vocational-course enrollment may inform college-going decisions. Taking more advanced vocational coursework is associated with lower four-year college-enrollment rates but no reduction in college completion, sug­gesting that students nudged away from four-year colleges by their exposure to a vocational secondary curriculum were unlikely to earn a degree had they enrolled.

Vocational study attracts most students. The majority of American students take at least one vocational course during high school and roughly 50 percent of students take the equivalent of one full course each year. This challenges the conception of vocational study as an alternative to academic classes.

Older students take more vocational classes. Enrollment in vocational classes grows substantially in 11th and 12th grades, when students are more likely to have completed other academic requirements and have more control over their schedules.

“[S]tudents most likely to benefit from vocational coursework seem to be self-selecting into those courses, implying that policies that limit their ability to do so, such as increased course requirements in academic subjects, may not be in all students’ best interests,” say Kreisman and Stange. They add that recent trends toward specialized vocational concentrations are smart policy.

To receive an embargoed copy of “Depth over Breadth: The Value of Vocational Education in U.S. High Schools” or to speak with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at The article will be available Tuesday, July 30 on and will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Education Next, available in print on August 28, 2019.

About the Authors: Daniel Kreisman is assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University and director of CTEx. Kevin Stange is associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit

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