The 1990 Perkins Act defines vocational education as "organized
educational programs offering a sequence of courses which are directly related
to the preparation of individuals in paid or unpaid employment in current or
emerging occupations requiring other than a baccalaureate or advanced degree."(2) While vocational education is provided at both the
secondary and postsecondary levels, its focus differs somewhat at each level.
Secondary Vocational Education
The objectives of vocational education are more varied at the secondary than at the postsecondary level. Secondary vocational courses can be classified into three types: (1) consumer and homemaking education; (2) general labor market preparation; and (3) specific labor market preparation (figure 1).(3) Specific labor market preparation courses teach students the skills needed to enter a particular occupational field. Such courses can be grouped into the following occupational program areas:(4)
Figure 1 Secondary school taxanomy
Figure 2 Classification of academic and vocational courses for less-than-4-year postsecondary institutions
Most public high school students participate in vocational education. In 1992, almost all public high school graduates (97 percent) completed at least one vocational education course, and 87 percent completed at least one occupationally specific course (table 1). On average, graduates completed the equivalent of almost four full-year courses in vocational education (3.8 credits), with two and a half of these courses in occupational program areas (table 4).(14)
Although public high school graduates earned greater numbers of total and academic credits over the decade from 1982 to 1992, credits earned in vocational education decreased (table 51). Between 1982 and 1992, total credits earned by high school graduates increased about 11 percent (from 21 to 24 credits), while academic credits earned rose about 22 percent (from 14 to 17 credits). In contrast, over the same period, the average number of vocational credits earned by high school graduates declined by almost 1 full credit, or by about 17 percent. By 1992, vocational coursework made up only 16 percent of the total coursework completed by high school graduates, down from 21 percent in 1982 (figure 3). The National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE) found that this declining vocational enrollment might be attributed to several factors, such as increasing high school graduation requirements over the 1982-1992 decade and the vulnerability of secondary vocational programs to local economic conditions.(15)
Figure 3--Average number of credits earned by public high school graduates in academic and vocational courses, and the percentage of total credits earned in high school that those credits represent: 1982-1992
Between 1982 and 1992, participation in the occupationally specific
curriculum was somewhat more stable than in other vocational areas (tables 50
and 53). The percentage of public high school graduates completing at least one
occupational course remained about the same (at approximately 87 percent), and
the average number of credits earned by graduates in occupational programs
decreased over the decade by less than half a credit (from 2.9 to 2.5 credits)
or by about 14 percent. In contrast, both the percentages of graduates
participating in the consumer and homemaking and the general labor market
preparation curricula and the average number of credits graduates earned in
these areas declined significantly over the decade (with average credits earned
declining about 29 and 36 percent in these respective areas).
The NAVE found that 5.8 million students were enrolled in postsecondary vocational education in 1990, making up about 35 percent of all undergraduate postsecondary enrollments (16) Vocational enrollments represented an even larger share of the nonbaccalaureate undergraduate population, with about one-half of these students reporting that they were majoring in a vocational program area (table 58). In contrast, one in four nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students reported an academic major and one in four were taking personal or avocational courses (for example, basic skills and citizenship activities).(17) Nonbaccalaureate students at all types of postsecondary institutions reported majoring in vocational programs, although the proportion of the nonbaccalaureate student body that was vocationally oriented varied by institution type (table 64). For example, at public 4-year postsecondary institutions about one-third of nonbaccalaureate students reported majoring in vocational programs, while at public vocational-technical institutes 90 percent of nonbaccalaureate students were in the vocational curriculum.(18)
Business was the most popular occupational program at the high school level, with more than half of all 1992 high school graduates completing at least one business course (table 16). Business was followed in popularity by trade and industry and then by technical and communications programs.
Although overall participation in the occupationally specific curriculum declined somewhat over the decade from 1982 to 1992, trends varied by program area. The percentage of graduates completing at least one course in the technical and communications area, as well as the average number of credits earned in this program area, increased between 1982 and 1992 (tables 55 and 56). In contrast, both the percentage of graduates completing at least one trade and industry course and the average number of trade and industry credits earned declined over the decade. The NAVE found that these occupational enrollment patterns appeared to follow labor market trends.(19)
As was the case at the secondary level, the most popular postsecondary vocational program was business, with about 17 percent of all nonbaccalaureate students declaring a major in this area (table 70). Business was followed in popularity by health (11 percent) and then trade and industry (8 percent) programs.(20) The combined technical fields (computers and data processing, engineering and science technologies, protective services, and communications technologies) accounted for 12 percent of all nonbaccalaureate majors (figure 4).
Figure 4--Percentage of nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students majoring in vocational fields, by program area: 1989-90
Program enrollment varied significantly by institution type (table 70).
Students at private proprietary; private, nonprofit 4-year; and public 2- to
3-year institutions were more likely to major in business than students at
public 4-year institutions. In contrast, students at public vocational-technical
institutes and private proprietary schools were much more likely to major in
trade and industry than students at all other postsecondary institutions.
Vocational Concentration and Specialization at the Secondary Level
The NAVE found that concentrating one's vocational coursetaking resulted in higher earnings, especially if students entered training-related jobs.(21) However, few 1992 graduates completed a sequence of courses providing significant preparation in a single occupational area. About 24 percent of high school graduates were vocational "concentrators," earning 3 or more credits in a single occupational program, and about 8 percent of graduates were vocational "specialists," earning 4 or more credits in a single program with at least 2 of these credits beyond the introductory level (tables 34 and 37). Lack of focused coursetaking was not restricted to the vocational curriculum. The majority of high school graduates (60 percent) failed to meet the criteria for either the college preparatory or vocational specializations (figure 5 and table 34).(22)
Figure 5--Percentage of 1992 public high school graduates, by area of specialization
While graduates were more likely to complete at least one course in business
than in any other occupational area, they were more likely to concentrate in
trade and industry programs. Specifically, 10 percent of 1992 high school
graduates earned 3 or more credits in trade and industry, while 8 percent earned
this number of business credits (table 37). Nearly half of all vocational
concentrators concentrated in the trade and industry curriculum, although
business was the most frequent vocational concentration among college
preparatory graduates. Technical and communications and health programs had the
fewest concentrators among all graduates, perhaps due to a lack of available
courses. The disparity between a high level of coursetaking and low level of
concentration in business and in technical and communications may be due to
students electing not to concentrate in these areas. The NAVE attributed the
disparity to many students seeking computer-related coursework through these
programs rather than specific occupational preparation.(23)
Levels of Vocational Coursetaking at the Secondary Level
High levels of vocational coursetaking in high school did not always mean that graduates completed advanced occupational courses. In fact, 20 percent of 1992 high school graduates who earned 8 or more vocational credits and about 25 percent of those who earned 4 or more occupationally specific credits did not take a single occupational course above the introductory level (table 25). Among all graduates, twice as many took introductory occupational courses as took advanced ones (75 percent compared with 35 percent).(24)
Rates of advanced course completion varied by program concentration. Vocational concentrators in marketing were more likely than concentrators in other program areas to take advanced courses in their area of concentration (86 percent of marketing concentrators took advanced marketing courses) (table 31).(25) In contrast, concentrators in occupational home economics were less likely than those in most other program areas to take advanced courses in their concentration (40 percent took such courses).(26)
Sex and race-ethnicity were related to differences in participation in
vocational education at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.
High school vocational course-taking patterns differed for males and females. Male graduates in 1992 earned about one-third more occupationally specific credits, while female graduates earned almost twice as many consumer and homemaking education credits (table 4). Furthermore, the percentages of males and females completing at least one occupational course differed significantly in all program areas except marketing (table 16). In particular, males in 1992 were more than twice as likely to complete at least one course in agriculture and in trade and industry, while females were more than twice as likely to complete at least one course in health and in occupational home economics (figure 6).
Figure 6--Percentage of 1992 public high school graduates completing one or more courses in occupational programs by program area, by sex
Between 1982 and 1992, there was little increase in the percentage of
students participating in occupational programs that were nontraditional for
their sex (table 55).(27) The gender gap in trade and industry narrowed over the decade, although this
narrowing was not due to more females completing courses in this program
area. Rather, the gap narrowed because of a drop in participation for males.
Moreover, the gap in participation for males and females remained about the same
in agriculture, health, and occupational home economics. However, while females
in 1982 were more than one and a half times as likely as males to participate in
business, this gap narrowed significantly by 1992.
The patterns of vocational concentration for males and females were similar to those for coursetaking (tables 34 and 37). Males were more likely than females to be vocational concentrators and specialists, while females were more likely to be in the college preparatory track. Additionally, males were more likely to concentrate in agriculture, trade and industry, and technical and communications, while females were significantly more likely to concentrate in business, health, and occupational home economics.(28)
High school vocational course-taking patterns also differed based on race-ethnicity. Native Americans appeared to earn above average numbers of vocational and occupationally specific credits, and Asians below average numbers of these credits, although these differences were not statistically significant possibly due to the small sample sizes for these groups (table 4). Native American graduates also appeared both to concentrate and specialize in vocational education at above average rates, although these differences were once again not statistically significant (tables 34 and 37). However, Native Americans had higher than average rates of concentration in trade and industry programs, and lower than average rates in programs offering computer coursework, including business and technical and communications. White,(29) black,(30) and Hispanic graduates differed little from the overall pool of high school graduates in terms of the numbers of vocational and occupationally specific credits they earned and their rates of concentration and specialization. These groups also exhibited no consistent patterns of over- or underparticipation in specific occupational programs.
The majority (57 percent) of nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students in 1989-90 were female (table 90). In fact, females represented the majority of the student populations at five of the six types of postsecondary institutions in the study, with the exception of public vocational-technical institutes, where males and females participated at similar rates. This enrollment pattern was reflected among students who reported majoring in vocational programs, with the majority (54 percent) of all vocational majors being female. Females were in the minority among vocational majors at public 4-year institutions only.
Most (74 percent) nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students in 1989-90 were white (table 90). However, the racial-ethnic composition of students varied markedly by institution type. While three-quarters or more of nonbaccalaureate students at public and private 4-year institutions, public 2- to 3-year institutions, and public vocational-technical institutes were white, more than 40 percent of private proprietary students were from a minority group.(31) These patterns persisted among students reporting vocational majors.
Black nonbaccalaureate students reported majoring in vocational education at above average rates, with almost two-thirds of this racial-ethnic group majoring in a vocational program area in comparison with about half of all students (table 59). Even after controlling for socioeconomic background, the NAVE found that black postsecondary students were more likely than all other groups to major in vocational areas.(32)
Public high school graduates in 1992 who were members of special populations were generally more likely than other graduates to participate in vocational education overall and in occupationally specific education. Graduates in lower socioeconomic quartiles; students with disabilities, lower grade point averages, and greater numbers of accumulated remedial credits; and both student parents and expecting students were more likely to participate than other students.(33) These special populations were more likely to complete at least one course in vocational education overall and in occupationally specific education (table 2). In addition, they generally earned greater numbers of vocational and occupationally specific credits than their counterparts who were not members of special populations (table 5 and figure 7).(34) However, English proficiency was not related to vocational participation. Limited-English proficient graduates participated at roughly equal rates as English proficient graduates in vocational education and occupationally specific education and earned roughly similar numbers of credits in these curricula.
Figure 7--Average number of credits accumulated by 1992 public high school graduates in occupationally specific courses, by special population status
Members of most special population groups were also more likely than other
graduates to concentrate and specialize in vocational education (tables 35 and
38). Students in lower socioeconomic quartiles and students with disabilities,
lower grade point averages, and greater numbers of accumulated credits in
remedial coursework were more likely than other students to be both vocational
concentrators and specialists. Limited-English proficient students were more
likely than their English proficient counterparts to be vocational
concentrators.(35) Given their high levels of
vocational coursetaking, the propensity of students with disabilities and
economically and academically disadvantaged students to concentrate their
coursetaking in a single occupational program area--and to earn at least 2
credits in that program area above the introductory level--was a positive
indication that these students were not simply taking scattered, lower level
Special population students were somewhat less likely than other graduates to concentrate in programs offering exposure to computer coursework (table 38). Students in lower socioeconomic quartiles and students with lower grade point averages and greater numbers of accumulated credits in remedial coursework were more likely than their economically and academically advantaged counterparts to concentrate in occupational home economics and trade and industry. Students with disabilities were more than twice as likely as nondisabled students to concentrate in trade and industry, and were less likely to concentrate in technical and communications. Additionally, students accumulating greater numbers of credits in remedial coursework were less likely than other students to concentrate in business. However, students in lower socioeconomic quartiles were more likely than their more affluent counterparts to concentrate in business.
Economically disadvantaged students and unmarried students with dependents were more likely to report a vocational major than other nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students, but academically disadvantaged and disabled students were no more likely to do so (table 60). Specifically, during the 1989-90 academic year, nonbaccalaureate postsecondary students from families in lower socioeconomic quartiles were more likely to report majoring in a vocational program than students from affluent families. Additionally, unmarried students with dependents were more likely than all other groups to major in vocational education. In contrast, there was no consistent relationship between grade point average and majoring in vocational education, and disabled students were no more likely than their nondisabled peers to report a vocational major.
Section 421 of the 1990 Perkins Act called upon the Department of Education to report information on the participation of incarcerated persons in vocational education.(36) The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) provided the first national data on this group. NALS revealed that about one-third of federal and state prison inmates aged 16 or over in 1992 had received vocational training during their current period of incarceration (table 96). Whether inmates received vocational training varied by educational attainment. Inmates with a high school diploma or GED, or with some college education, were more likely than inmates with lower educational attainment to receive vocational training as their sole educational activity. However, inmates participated in a combination of vocational and nonvocational activities at similar rates regardless of their educational attainment.
Academic Coursetaking at the Secondary Level
In 1992, fewer than one in five public high school graduates met all of the academic standards established in A Nation At Risk for noncollege-bound graduates (table 40).(37) Graduates earning more credits in vocational education were less likely than graduates with fewer accumulated vocational credits to meet the standards in each subject area, except for computer science. Increased vocational coursework was associated with higher rates of compliance with the computer science standard. Additionally, graduates concentrating in the "high tech" fields of technical and communications and business were more likely than other vocational concentrators to meet all of the A Nation At Risk standards, and were just as likely as nonconcentrators to do so. These technical and business concentrators were also more likely than other vocational concentrators to specialize in the college preparatory curriculum, and technical concentrators were just as likely as graduates with no vocational concentration to do so (table 34).(38)
As the number of vocational credits that 1992 public high school graduates earned rose, the number of academic credits they earned decreased in all subject areas (table 41). However, the rate of tradeoff between academic and vocational credits varied across academic subject areas. For example, as graduates earned greater numbers of vocational credits, the decline in academic credits they earned was smaller for English and social studies and greater for foreign language than it was for other academic subjects (figure 8).(39)
Figure 8--Academic credits earned by public high school graduates as a percent of academic credits earned by graduates with low participation in vocational education,1 by subject area and number of vocational credits accumulated: 1992
Additionally, the rate of tradeoff between vocational and advanced academic
credits varied across academic subject areas. As graduates earned greater
numbers of vocational credits, the decline in advanced math credits they earned
was greater than the decline in math credits in general. However, there was no
significant difference between the rates of decline in advanced and general
English and science courses.
Generally, as vocational coursetaking increased, students not only earned fewer credits in academic subject areas but also completed more of their academic coursework at lower levels. For example, as 1992 public high school graduates earned increasing numbers of credits in vocational education, they also earned more credits in remedial English, in math at levels lower than Algebra 1, and in survey science courses (tables 43, 45, and 47). As previously discussed, these patterns may reflect the fact that academically disadvantaged students were more likely than their advantaged counterparts to participate heavily in vocational education.
Efforts to Integrate Academic and Vocational Education
In an effort to improve the quality of both academic and vocational education, the 1990 Perkins Act
encouraged secondary schools and postsecondary institutions to integrate these curricula.(40) By the spring of 1992, most schools and institutions reported some integration efforts (tables 97 and 100). However, most of these efforts involved enhancing existing vocational courses--rather than significantly restructuring the academic and vocational curricula--and did not appear to receive a substantial new allocation of resources, particularly in terms of allocating teachers' time. The following discussion provides examples of integration efforts undertaken at both the secondary and postsecondary levels.
Secondary level. At the secondary education level, more than 80 percent of public high schools offering vocational courses reported taking some action to integrate academic and vocational education by the 1991-92 school year (table 97). Vocational schools (including full-time and area or regional vocational high schools) were more likely than comprehensive high schools to have begun integration efforts. Among schools taking integration steps, vocational schools were also more likely to report efforts to integrate occupational programs.
The most frequently used method of integrating academic and vocational education was to incorporate employability or generic work skills, such as SCANS skills, into vocational courses (table 97).(41) Additionally, when academic and vocational teachers worked together, they were more likely to collaborate on developing academic materials for vocational courses, or applied materials for academic courses, than to collaborate on other efforts, such as team teaching or developing coordinated academic and vocational courses.(42) Finally, teachers had regularly scheduled time to work together on integration efforts at fewer than one-quarter of the secondary schools reporting such efforts.
Postsecondary level. At the postsecondary education level, almost all institutions (more than 96 percent) reported taking some action to integrate academic and vocational education by the 1991-92 school year (table 100). The most common integration efforts involved increasing the basic skills of vocational students (through supporting remedial or developmental education) and establishing general education competencies for these students.
The most common way in which faculty were involved in developing integrated curricula was reviewing general education requirements or developing academic materials to be incorporated into existing vocational courses. Faculty members had regularly scheduled time to work on integration efforts at about one-quarter of community colleges and vocational-technical institutes, and at about one in ten area or regional vocational schools serving postsecondary students.
Mathematics Achievement at the Secondary Level
A recent study of the relationship between coursetaking and achievement found that increased academic coursetaking was consistently associated with higher mathematics achievement, and increased vocational coursetaking with lower mathematics achievement, as measured by a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) achievement test.(43) Specifically, 1990 public high school graduates who scored in higher test quartiles on the NAEP mathematics assessment earned more academic and fewer vocational credits than did graduates in lower test quartiles (tables 107 and 108). Furthermore, as the number of vocational credits that graduates accumulated rose, their mathematics test scores tended to decrease (tables 105 and 106). The study indicated that these patterns persisted for males and females and graduates in all racial-ethnic groups.
The study cautioned against assuming a causal relationship between vocational coursetaking and lower mathematics achievement based on these findings. Because the study examined achievement at a single point in time, it was unable to isolate students' prior ability or achievement and, therefore, to control for preexisting differences--or "selection effects"--between students who completed greater and fewer numbers of vocational courses.(44) A related study found that while certain academic courses contributed to cognitive gain, vocational courses generally had a neutral effect on cognitive growth.(45) Thus, the lower mathematics achievement of graduates with greater numbers of accumulated vocational credits may reflect their completing fewer academic courses rather than more vocational courses. In addition, the tendency of heavy vocational coursetakers to complete a large proportion of their academic courses at lower levels, as noted earlier in this report, may also contribute to these low math test scores.
Postsecondary Employment and Earnings Outcomes
Among the general population, only about one in five adults aged 18-34 in the summer of 1990 had completed a postsecondary degree or certificate, and about one-fourth of those completers earned their highest postsecondary award in a vocational field (table 109). Vocational completers were more likely than persons never attending a postsecondary institution to be employed (table 110). However, while they appeared more likely than postsecondary noncompleters to be employed, this difference was not statistically significant. Vocational completers were employed at similar rates as nonvocational associate's degree or certificate holders, and were slightly less likely to be employed than bachelor's degree holders.(46)
During the summer of 1990, about one-half of all employed postsecondary vocational completers aged 18-34 worked in a field related to their training (table 111). Training-related employment appeared to make no difference in the constancy with which postsecondary vocational completers were employed between the summer of 1990 and the winter of 1992 (table 112).(47)
Although relatedness of employment to postsecondary vocational training did not appear to be related to employment stability, it was positively associated with earnings in the summer of 1990 (table 113).(48) For example, 39 percent of postsecondary vocational completers employed in a field related to their training earned more than $2,000 per month, while 30 percent of those employed in an unrelated field had this level of earnings. In contrast, 25 percent of vocational completers employed in an unrelated field earned less than $1,100 per month, while 17 percent of those employed in a related field earned this little.
In addition to offering classroom-based courses, secondary schools and
postsecondary institutions often provide opportunities for work-based learning,
such as cooperative education, work experience, and school-based enterprises.
Cooperative education and work experience programs allow students to earn school
credit in conjunction with paid or unpaid employment. Cooperative education
programs place students in jobs related to their vocational field of study, and
typically involve employers in developing a formal training plan and evaluating
students. On the other hand, traditional work experience programs sometimes
place students in vocationally unrelated jobs, and may not involve employers as
extensively as cooperative education programs.(49)
School-based enterprises are class-related activities that engage students
in producing goods or services for sale or use to people other than the
participating students themselves.
Secondary level. About one-half of public high schools in 1991-92 offered cooperative education programs (table 98). In contrast, fewer than one-third offered school-based enterprises and other work experience programs. Vocational schools were more likely than comprehensive high schools to offer each of these programs. Among vocational schools, area vocational schools were more likely than full-time vocational high schools to offer school-based enterprises and other work experience programs.
On average, 1992 public high school graduates accumulated 0.15 credits in cooperative education and work experience courses--equivalent to about one in seven graduates completing a year-long course (table 22). College preparatory graduates and graduates without a college preparatory or vocational specialization averaged negligible numbers of such credits (0.04 and 0.09, respectively). However, vocational specialists averaged about 1 credit in cooperative education and work experience, equivalent to a full-year course. High school students concentrating in marketing and distribution and in health completed more cooperative education and work experience coursework as part of their occupational programs than did other vocational concentrators.(50)
Postsecondary level. Three-quarters of community colleges reported offering cooperative education or work experience programs in 1991-92 (table 103). In contrast, about half of public postsecondary vocational-technical institutes and area vocational schools serving postsecondary students reported offering these programs. Fewer than one-sixth of all postsecondary institutions offered school-based enterprises, with area vocational schools that served postsecondary students being more likely than community colleges and vocational-technical institutes to offer these programs.