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As colleges and universities have become more intentional about preparing their students for careers, they should become more conscious that many of their students are showing up for freshman year already with significant career and professional skills -- graduates of career and technical education programs (CTEs). In the past decades, graduates of vocational or career technical high schools were not primarily known for attending colleges and universities, but for gaining job skills to head directly into the workforce. As one of the co-authors learned early in her college career, she was alone in being an alumna of such a high school:
When I was attending my college orientation, we formed a circle, and each of us stepped into the circle one by one saying something about ourselves. I stepped forward and said I had attended a career/technical high school -- no one else stepped in. Crickets.
However, this story was not over. As she got more experience on campus, working at her college’s career center, it became clear that her experience at the technical high school was critical to her success on and off campus:
My supervisor at the career center brought together the three top student workers in the office and told them, “There is something different about the three of you. I want to figure out why you look at the problems differently and solve them differently.” We figured out that we had all attended vocational-technical high schools, and that this early experience learning about career options and interning in professional settings gave us an edge over other students on campus.
Career and technical education programs have changed in the past decade, and CTEs are no longer the track for students not planning to go to college. As a result, they represent a rich and untapped source of students for college and universities, and arrive on campus way ahead of their peers in many key areas. Colleges need to move from seeing graduates of technical and vocational high schools in a deficit model -- as students who are not college ready or college bound -- to a strengths model -- seeing these students as bringing to campus skills and experiences that put them ahead of their peers in many dimensions. As one alumna of a CTE high school put it:
My time in vocational/technical high school gave me a head start on skills such as teamwork, as all of our work was project-based, and we worked with a group of fellow students for six hours at a time. The school also helped me develop time management skills, professionalism and organizational skills through exercises such as station checks. We were also required to complete four college applications and were expected to go on to college -- about 98 percent of our seniors were accepted to college.
In Massachusetts, the landscape of vocational and technical education has transformed completely in the past decades. Once a track for students who were determined to be not college bound, these schools now are equal to or better than traditional high schools in college preparations. Vermont high schools now have a 97 percent high school graduation rate and state test scores on par with the school that the student would have attended. Investments in curriculum and equipment have built new programs at Vermont high schools, including new programs in areas such as biotechnology, engineering, advanced manufacturing and mechatronics.
State investment in equipment has created well-equipped labs that put many college facilities to shame. Shaun Dougherty’s research on CTE has shown that the benefits for students attending these institutions are real and measurable: “Students who participate … have better graduation and enrollment outcomes, higher probabilities of earning industry-recognized credentials, and no difference in the probability of passing both exams required to earn a high school diploma than similar peers who do not attend these schools. The effects are largest for students from lower-income backgrounds.”
As colleges are looking to enhance their diversity, in terms of race, economics and geography, CTE high schools are a good recruiting ground, as they have prepared their students for the next educational and career steps, more than that student would have been prepared had she/he stayed in their traditional high school.
Students in CTE programs have benefited from a combination of technical training, academic classes that are paired with these technical classes, and real-world experience in job settings. In many schools, these experiences include early college and dual-enrollment opportunities that provide students with an advanced look at college level work, including up to a year of college credit, and professional certifications that enable students to work at a good wage while in college. This unique format of CTE education means that students arrive at their freshman year of college at a more advanced spot than their peers, and they are a resource to mentor their peers as they start to explore the career arena.
As a result, with at least a year of work in the field through internships and job shadowing, CTE graduates know far better what they want to study and what careers they are interested in pursuing. Colleges and universities are struggling to keep up with these students and create freshman-year experiences that build on these experiences. While many students from traditional high schools arrive at college in need of experiences to make up their mind about an area of study and career field, students from CTE programs crave experiences to deepen their engagement in a field that they have already chosen. As one graduate of a CTE program put it:
At our school, people respected the different areas that students went into. At lunch, you would see students all in different trade uniforms, but the school was a community of people who all had a passion for what they wanted to do. For me, I learned about a lot of different student learning styles, and got to see how differently people learn -- from people who are best at reading to students who learned best through muscle memory.
As fewer traditional high school students enter college with meaningful job experience, colleges and universities are now trying to build into their general education and other programming some of the innovations pioneered by vocational/technical high schools. General education coursework for freshman and sophomore years of college is changing to become more rooted in real-world problems and career exploration. Career offices on college campuses are designing and implementing programs and retreats designed to help students become accustomed to the professional environment and to build the soft skills needed to advance one’s career. These are issues that CTE graduates have faced in their school years, and can be a resource for their peers in job-seeking and career-development activities.
Finally, colleges and universities need to change to address the needs of these students, or they will not attend. Graduates of vocational and technical high schools often have occupational and other certifications that allow them to enter the workforce at a decent wage. If colleges and universities are pedestrian in their recruitment efforts, or unable to provide an engaging curriculum for these students, they can simply enter the workforce until they find a way to advance their education that is more attractive.
In our experience at Merrimack College, students from vocational and technical high school programs arrive at open houses in education far ahead of their peers. They have already taken coursework in curriculum and instruction and have often interned at one or more school settings. Unlike their peers, who think they might be potential teachers, the graduates of CTE programs have experience in the field and are thinking of how to achieve leadership in their career area.
Our college admits over 100 students per year from local career, vocational and technical high schools, and about 25 per year enroll. That is, right now, only about 3 percent of our entering class, but if that were to increase, we would have a more academically prepared, more career ready and more diverse undergraduate student body.