Who Participates in New Vocational Programs? A Preliminary Analysis of Student Data from NLSY97


This paper presents a first look at new data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). The two main purposes of this paper are (1) to compare students in combined academic/vocational programs with high school students in other curricular categories in 1997 and (2) to compare the 1997 patterns with those found in earlier surveys.

Previous studies have found that the proportion of high school students participating in vocational course sequences has declined during the 1980s and early 1990s, and vocational concentrators have increasingly represented a low-achieving segment of the student population. To counter these tendencies, public and private initiatives have promoted new forms of high school vocational education that include academic studies and lead to postsecondary education. A survey of high school administrators for NLSY97 found a marked increase in the prevalence of certain new vocational programs in the 1990s. This paper examines student data from NLSY97 to determine which students are participating in these new programs.

Our analysis focused on students who said they were pursuing a combined academic and vocational program of study. We found that they did indeed report relatively high rates of participation in career-related programs and activities; however, they did not report taking more math and science courses—the number of math and science courses they took was substantially less than students in the academic program, and closer to the number taken by students in the general and vocational programs.

Since the data do not tell us whether students who said they were in a combined academic/vocational program were actually participating in a deliberately structured sequence of academic and vocational learning experiences, these and other findings do not indicate whether or not schools that offer such deliberately structured sequences are including rigorous math and science courses.

Compared to students who said they were in a vocational program only, the students in a combined program were more similar to the overall student population in socioeconomic composition, though there was a relatively large proportion of females. Compared to vocational students, those in the combined program also expressed more confidence about completing high school and reported being less often absent from school.

Previous surveys from 1982 through 1994 found similar differences between vocational students and those who pursued a combined academic/ vocational course of study. In the earlier surveys, students were classified according to completed high school transcripts rather than self-reports. Despite the difference in classification procedure, the earlier surveys also show that students in the combined category received better grades, registered fewer unexcused absences from school, and expressed more confidence about finishing high school, compared to vocational concentrators. On the other hand, because of the way students in the combined category were defined in earlier surveys, they were more likely to have taken Algebra I and Biology than NLSY97 students who said they were enrolled in a combined academic/vocational program.

Definitional differences between NLSY97 and earlier surveys permit only approximate comparison of the change between 1994 and 1997 in the proportion of students pursuing a combined academic/vocational course of study. That proportion, which rose steadily from 1982 to 1994, appeared to continue its steady rise through 1997. More precise estimates of the trend will have to await the availability of completed transcripts from the NLSY97 sample.

In the meantime, this first look at the NLSY97 student data seems to confirm that new vocational programs, which permit students to combine academic and vocational studies, have moved career and technical education toward the mainstream of the high school curriculum and engaged a broader cross-section of the student population. Judgments about whether this trend is good or bad depend on beliefs about the purposes of vocational education in high school.

Delci, M., & Stern, D. (1999, November). Who participates in new vocational programs? A preliminary analysis of student data from NLSY97. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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