Does Participation in a School-To-Career Program Limit Educational and Career Opportunities?

Robert Bozick
Johns Hopkins University

Keith MacAllum
Academy for Educational Development

Abstract

School-to-career (STC) programs have frequently been criticized for steering participants into a one-track career path and narrowing their scope of educational possibilities. On the other hand, STC programs have been touted for their positive influence on preparing students for the challenges and responsibilities of the workplace. Little empirical evidence, however, has been put forth to gauge the positive/negative effects of STC program participation with respect to career plans, educational trajectories, and labor force attachment post-high school. This paper examines graduates of a manufacturing focused STC program alongside a comparison group in order to detect similarities and differences in their post-high school lives. STC graduates are more likely to work in and have career goals that are aligned with the STC program sponsor, yet have higher post-secondary enrollment rates, greater educational expectations, and are better prepared for the transition to young adulthood. Most importantly, program participation does not compromise career goals.

Maintaining the principle of equality of opportunity for students while simultaneously preparing them for the challenges of adult life has remained at the heart of the debate over the role of career development and career training in the American education system. This tension remains of concern as educational policy makers evaluate the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 (STWOA) which, unlike traditional vocational initiatives that have historically targeted the non-college bound, sought to bridge partnerships between schools and local businesses to provide work-based learning for all students ( U.S 103rd Congress, 1994 ). Those who support the STWOA assert that it is necessary for schools to equip students for the situations and tasks they will face in the adult work force ( Lewis, 1997 ; National School-to-Work Learning and Information Center, 1999 ). Opponents, on the other hand, argue that it serves the interests of business over students and consequently removes individual agency from establishing personal career trajectories ( Lewis, Stone, Shipley, and Madzar, 1998 ; Miller, 2001 ; Patterson, 1999 ).

Although inquiries on the transition to young adulthood have looked at the role of traditional vocational education on youth development ( Arum & Shavit, 1995 ; Kerckhoff & Bell, 1998 ), little empirical evidence has been put forth that critically examines the influence of participation in a school-to-career (STC) program on career plans, educational trajectories, and labor force attachment post-high school graduation. In this paper, we examine graduates of a STC initiative alongside a comparison group to see if and how their career plans and post-high school lives differ.

The School-to-Career Debate

Proponents of the school-to-career movement maintain that the skills and values required by employers need to be integrated into the agenda and practices of the standard school curriculum so that upon graduation, students will be able to successfully transition into and achieve in the labor force. Indeed, this pragmatic orientation towards education was an impetus for education policy reform within the past two decades. One of the most influential pieces in the debate was the frequently cited 'A Nation at Risk' report ( National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983 ), which blamed public education for failing to prepare students for higher education and the work force and consequently doing harm to the United States' economic eminence. This indictment of America's schools sent education policy makers down a split path. The first wave of reform stressed a 'back to the basics' agenda with an emphasis on college preparatory English, math, and science ( Lewis et al., 1998 ). This movement was by and large focused on helping the already college bound sharpen their skills to compete in a global economy in which the U.S. was losing ground. The second wave of reforms, driven in part by reports such as Parnell's The Neglected Majority ( 1985 ), was geared more towards the non-college bound population ( Lewis et al., 1998 ). For them, gaining the skills required by employers, rather than a college focused curriculum, was necessary for a smooth transition into the workforce. The integration of workforce skills into traditional academic courses for both college bound and non-college bound youth became increasingly viewed as vital to the health of the domestic economy.

Method

Participants

Results

Does participation in a STC program alter individual plans for educational attainment?

Discussion

Table 3

Educational Enrollment Status; Six Months After High School Graduation

Group
STC Non-STC
Two Year College 49.5% 40.4%
Four Year College 32.7% 36.2%
Technical Training/Trade School 2.0% 3.2%
Registered Apprenticeship Program 1.0% 1.1%
Total Enrollment Rate 85.2% 80.9%

Stemming from the debates between John Dewey and David Snedden in the early 20th century ( Hyslop-Margison, 2001 ), discourse over the purpose of and need for integrating workforce skills into the classroom has largely hinged on the question of 'who benefits?' As noted earlier, the critics of the STC movement claim that local labor market needs dominate over equal and fair access to educational opportunities and that educational attainment and career plans are squelched in the process. While examining if STC programs are a significant benefit to local industry is beyond the scope of this paper, we do provide empirical evidence that participating in a STC program does not 'track' nor stagnate the educational and career plans of its graduates. If anything, our analyses reveal that STC graduates benefit from the experience via higher enrollment rates, higher educational expectations, and reports of being better prepared for the transition to young adulthood.

In some respects, claims from both sides of the debate are supported. Opponents of STC can easily point out that graduates from the STC program are more likely to report having a career goal that is related to the automotive industry and are more likely to be employed in the automotive industry six months after graduation. At first glance, it does appear that involvement in the program prepares students for a career into a specific industry (in this case automotive manufacturing) and that the industry benefits by having a supply of workers already trained for the job. However, it is important to remember that selectivity into the program may be producing the differences between the groups, not the program itself. Critics who claim that participation in STC programs removes individual autonomy need to keep in mind that students who already have an interest in pursuing a manufacturing career are more likely to apply to a STC program that focuses on manufacturing. Indeed, these students went through an application process for admission into the program. Because we could not randomly select students into either the STC or the non-STC sample, we caution that interpretations of our results may reflect underlying pre-existing differences between the samples.

With respect to the evidence that supports STC opponents, a careful consideration of other indicators such as the students' educational plans, enrollment patterns, and career goals, as well as the community within which the schools are situated, illustrate a scenario that is more complex than any single indicator taken alone. Most of the STC graduates who are working in the automotive industry are also enrolled in school and plan on attaining a bachelor's degree. It is most likely that their jobs are temporary as they are pursuing a college degree. In other words, working temporarily in the automotive industry may be a financial means to an educational end. The social networks that were established as well as the skills acquired throughout the program's duration most likely enabled them to find employment quickly out of high school. Additionally, this attachment to the sponsoring company benefits working students in that their hourly wages are greater than non-STC students. 6

That a large number of STC graduates envision a career in automotive manufacturing is not unusual given that they were raised in a community where a sizable proportion of the adult population is employed in the industry. What is promising is that they are just as likely to aspire to professional careers as their non-STC counterparts and overall have higher educational expectations. Their orientation to the automotive industry could be a reflection of the community in which they were raised. Their educational and career plans, on the other hand, indicate a desire for professional careers, rather than production line work.

Our analysis only scratches the surface with respect to the hundreds of STC projects that have resulted from the passage of the STWOA. In many ways, our research is preliminary. Graduates of the program are only recently out of high school and their careers are only in their infant stages. We plan to continue to track these cohorts for several more years. Our research focused on a STC initiative that took place during the final year of high school. Different findings could stem from programs that intervene earlier in the academic careers of students. Further research is needed to examine the scope and variety of STC projects and their influence on the career trajectories of its graduates. Particular attention needs to be paid to the industry type of the sponsoring company as well as the labor market in which the school is nested. Longitudinal designs, like the one employed here, would be most useful.

At the turn of the 20th century, a major educational focus was the skill mismatch between the traditional curriculum of the schools and the newly emerging industrial economy. In many ways, the same issues face educational reform today as we confront a global 38 economy that is driven by information technology. Higher education and career preparation are important as ever as young adults navigate their way into a labor market that requires advanced training and specialized skills. Our findings suggest that initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between the classroom and the work place are not misguided. We find no evidence that these types of policies in any way harm the post-secondary plans and early attainments of students. In fact, the results show favorably on this type of partnership. Policies that support STC programs should be encouraged, but should remain flexible in their content as to prepare students for STC transitions in general and a variety of career paths.

Table 5

Occupational Classification of Career Goals

% of Total Sample # of Automotive Goal-Oriented
Group Group
Occupation Type STC Non-STC STC Non-STC
Professional 33.7% 25.5% 19 4
Education 3.0% 8.5% - -
Doctor 5.0% 3.2% - -
Health Care 5.0% 3.2% - -
Law 3.0% 4.3% - -
Manager/Business 10.9% 9.6% 3 1
Official 1.0% 3.2% - -
Clerical 0.0% 2.1% - -
Craftsmen 8.9% 7.4% 6 -
Operatives 1.0% 0.0% 1 2
Service 5.0% 6.4% - -
Non-Farm Laborers 1.0% 0.0% - -
Military 2.0% 0.0% - -
"General Success" 5.0% 8.5% 1 -
Undecided 15.8% 18.1% 3 1
n 101 94 33 8

Notes

1 Although the sponsoring company is committed to increasing the educational capital of its workers and to developing production line positions which increasingly require a four year degree, the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey ( 2000 ) shows that 78.8% of employees in the manufacturing industry have a two year degree or less and that 95.6% of machine operators, assemblers, and inspectors hold a two year degree or less.

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