Research on School-to-Work Transition Programs in the United States

Publication March 1994

Encouraged by federal legislation, localities and states are designing new school-to-work systems. This report is intended to assist these design efforts by presenting the results of research on existing school-to-work programs in the United States. Section 404(b)(2) of the 1990 Amendments to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act requires that the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE) “shall annually prepare a study on the research conducted on approaches that lead to effective articulation for the education-to-work transition, including tech-prep programs, cooperative education or other work-based programs, such as innovative apprenticeship or mentoring approaches, and shall submit copies of such study to the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Committee on Labor and Human Resources of the Senate, and the Committee on Education and Labor of the House of Representatives.” This report fulfills that requirement.

The discussion begins with a brief overview of the difficulties encountered by many young people in making the transition from school to work. A chronic scarcity of career jobs is part of the problem. Reduced employment in manufacturing during the 1980s further diminished the prospects of men without any postsecondary education. The increase in relative earnings of four-year college graduates in the 1980s, along with evidence of a growing difference in earnings for high school graduates who are more competent in mathematics, points to an increased demand for mental ability in the workplace. One implication is that school-to-work systems should prepare students not only for their first full-time jobs, but also for continued learning and career transitions throughout their working lives.

Prominent among ideas for improving the school-to-work system are the integration of occupational and academic curricula, the linking of school with a structured work experience, and the creation of formal connections between secondary and postsecondary education. Each of these represents a formidable challenge. There is some disagreement about whether school-to-work programs should link high school to four-year colleges or only to two-year postsecondary institutions. Given the greater earnings of four-year college graduates, school-to-work programs risk being regarded as second-best unless they clearly keep the four-year college option open.

School-to-work programs are classified here in two main categories: School-and-work arrangements allow students to work and attend school during the same time period; apprenticeship and cooperative education are examples. School-for-work programs provide instruction with the express purpose of preparing students for work. Traditional and newer forms of vocational education are the main examples in this second category.

School-and-work programs that exist in many high schools and secondary vocational centers include cooperative education, new youth apprenticeships, and school-based enterprises. Cooperative education (co-op) has been practiced in the U.S. for more than seventy years. It involves students in paid work that is related to their field of study. Evaluations have indicated that co-op is successful in creating a stronger connection between school and work in students’ minds and in improving attitudes toward both school and work. However, co-op students have not generally been found to obtain higher earnings after leaving high school, unless they continue working for their co-op employer. One possible reason for this may be that co-op does not provide any certification that is widely recognized by employers. Therefore, co-op graduates who are not offered permanent jobs by their co-op employers may not obtain much advantage in the labor market from their co-op experience. If this assessment of co-op is correct, creation of skill standards for specific occupations and industries would help co-op graduates (in addition to graduates of other work-related programs) to convert their experience into higher earnings.

Co-op in high school has mainly been used as part of vocational education. Although some participants have gone to college, the proportion has been smaller than among other high school graduates.
High schools are now becoming involved in new youth apprenticeship initiatives. Like co-op, these link high school with a structured work experience, but they are also trying to create a clearer path to postsecondary education in addition to providing occupational certification. No evidence is yet available on the effects of these initiatives, though the first evaluations are forthcoming.

More widespread than youth apprenticeship is school-based enterprise, which involves students in producing goods or services for sale or for use to people other than the participating students themselves. Frequently observed activities of high school enterprise are house building, school stores, restaurants, child care, and car repair. Working in a school-based enterprise may provide some of the same benefits for students as working in a non-school enterprise and may be more conducive to learning since school-based enterprises exist for educational purposes. However, there has been virtually no systematic evaluation of these programs.

Many high school students are also employed in jobs that are not supervised by the school in any way. In fact, students participating in these do-it-yourself school-and-work arrangements vastly outnumber those involved in school-supervised or school-based work experience. Students who work during high school obtain higher earnings in the first few years after leaving high school. In addition, students who work only a moderate number of hours per week have been found to perform better in school than those who do not work at all. However, students who work more hours per week perform less well in high school and obtain less postsecondary education. It is difficult to say how much these correlations represent the effects of working or how much they reflect pre-existing differences among students. An important question, as yet unanswered, is whether providing some school supervision for jobs that are not now supervised by the school would mitigate some of the negative relationship between working and school performance.

School-and-work programs that are common in two-year colleges include cooperative education and apprenticeship. There has not been much evaluation of co-op in two-year colleges, as opposed to four-year colleges, where co-op has a different format and often a different purpose. The few evaluations in two-year colleges suggest results similar to co-op in high schools. Two-year colleges have also played a substantial role in providing the classroom component of traditional apprenticeship programs, and they are beginning to become involved in new youth apprenticeship initiatives.

In addition to these school-and-work programs, which involve students in school and work concurrently, vocational education at the secondary and postsecondary level also tries to create a strong sequential connection between school and work. Evidence on high school programs is mixed, but one clear finding is that the payoff is greater when vocational graduates find work related to their field of training. Students who complete two-year college degrees on average receive significantly greater earnings than students with high school diplomas only, but statistical studies that control for student background have found this effect only for associate’s degrees in math and science or for women in vocational fields. Estimates of the effects of taking courses but not completing a degree in a two-year college are highly variable. Effects of proprietary schools appear to be positive but smaller than those of two-year college degrees after age thirty.

Prompted in part by the 1990 Perkins Amendments, vocational education is changing. One major new initiative is the integration of vocational and academic curricula. Evaluations of five programs summarized here have found some positive effects on students’ school performance and retention, but there has not yet been much evaluation of effects on students’ subsequent employment.

The 1990 Perkins Amendments also provided new federal support for Tech Prep programs, which create a coherent sequence of courses linking high schools and (usually two-year) colleges. Some new youth apprenticeship programs can be described as Tech Prep with a work-based learning component. There has been some research on implementation of Tech Prep, but evaluation of its effects on students is still in progress.

Although this is a review of research on transition to work from school, we include a summary of selected studies of programs for young people who are not attending school. The Job Corps stands out as having the most positive evaluation results, but this was a quasi-experimental evaluation. No random-assignment evaluations have found any program to be effective in increasing the earnings of out-of-school youth.

There have been numerous studies, but the research is still limited in several respects. Very few evaluations have used random-assignment methods, so the possibility of selection bias is ever-present. Also, most programs are complex, and when a program is found to have positive effects, it is usually impossible to know exactly which element or elements are responsible. Finally, there is also a lack of evidence about the effects of a comprehensive school-to-work system; testing alternative systems in various localities would be a useful undertaking.

A concluding section considers implications for localities and states designing new school-to-work systems. A strategic issue is whether to design these systems only for students who are not expected to attend college or to include in these systems students who may go on to a four-year college or university. Keeping the four-year college option open avoids the risk of stigma and avoids limiting students’ future career prospects. On the other hand, keeping this option open adds to the complexity of designing new school-based curriculum and work-based learning arrangements. Though design and implementation are difficult, new school-to-work systems can potentially help young people not only to find their first full-time jobs, but also to acquire a capacity for learning while they work, which will help them throughout their working lives.

Stern, D., Finkelstein, N., Stone III, J. R., Latting, J., & Dornsife, C. (1994, March). Research on School-to-Work transition programs in the United States. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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