Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood
In urban high schools, too many students who manage to graduate are unprepared for postsecondary education or the world of work. And they often enter a labor market that offers them few opportunities for good jobs. These new findings from MDRC’s long-term study of Career Academies — a popular high school reform that combines academics with career devel- opment opportunities — shows that the model produces sustained employment and earnings gains, particularly among young men.
The report is the culmination of a 15-year random assignment study of Career Acade- mies in nine urban high schools around the country that has followed students from when they entered high school until eight years after their scheduled graduation. More than 80 percent of students in the sample are black or Hispanic. The evaluation, which has been funded by the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor and by 18 private foundations and organizations, represents an admirable commitment to objective evidence on the part of the Career Academy “movement.”
This study provides the most rigorous evidence to date that investing in career-oriented programs and experiences for high school students can have a long-term payoff in the labor market. Notably, the employment and earnings gains did not come at the expense of postsecon- dary enrollment and completion; Academy participants and students in the control group had similar levels of academic achievement. These findings suggest that pitting academic prepara- tion against career development in high schools may be a false dichotomy.
As one of the few high school initiatives with rigorous evidence of effectiveness (albeit concentrated on postsecondary labor market outcomes), the Career Academy model has at- tained prominent stature in the field. But the programs represented in this study were selected in part because they were judged to be good examples of the model. Of late, organizations that support the development of Career Academies have come under increasing pressure to rely on one or two of the model’s individual components — like small learning communities — with the expectation that elements of the program can produce results similar to those found in this study. However, until further research is conducted on the separate effects of specific compo- nents, policymakers and practitioners hoping to achieve comparable impacts should look to im- plement the full model with fidelity.
In sum, the employment and earnings effects of Career Academies are encouraging news, particularly for young men of color, who are often left behind in the labor market. Career Academies appear to offer these young men a boost — comparable to the earnings premium of a year or two of postsecondary education — that puts them on a different earnings trajectory.
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