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Executive Summary

This report examines the issues of occupational student enrollment, persistence, attainment, and labor market outcomes for a cohort of first-time, credential-seeking postsecondary students. Occupational students are defined here as subbaccalaureate students (i.e., students seeking associate's degrees or certificates) in occupational (rather than academic) fields of study.1 The report's focus on these students derives from a congressional mandate for NCES to report information on career/technical education, which is defined as occupationally oriented education at the subbaccalaureate level. (The mandate and definition are in the 2006 Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, P.L. 109-270.) Specifically, the report examines three broad issues concerning occupational education that are key indicators of the status of occupational education and are emphasized in the Perkins Act:

  • Who enters postsecondary occupational education?
  • To what extent do occupational students persist in postsecondary education and to what extent do they complete their credential goals (i.e., earning a postsecondary certificate or degree)?
  • What are the labor market outcomes for postsecondary occupational students who earn credentials?

Of specific interest in this report is the extent to which occupational students differ from baccalaureate students and from academic subbaccalaureate students in terms of the questions listed above. However, since occupational students are more likely than academic subbaccalaureate students to seek certificates, the report also examines the extent to which occupational and academic associate's degree seekers do not differ from each other, but do differ from occupational certificate seekers.

The data used in this report are from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study (BPS), including the 1995–96 base-year survey and its two follow-up surveys in 1997–98 and 2000–01 (BPS:96/01). The base-year BPS surveyed a nationally representative sample of all beginning postsecondary students in academic year 1995–96. For this report, this sample was restricted by excluding (1) students who had not previously attained a high school diploma or its equivalent, and (2) students who did not expect to earn a postsecondary credential (certificate or degree) at their first postsecondary institution. These restrictions reduced the size of the base- year BPS:96 sample for this analysis from 12,080 to 9,221 first-time credential-seeking students. The sample was further restricted by the use of sampling weights, which were available for 7,274 of the 9,221 students.

The report presents mainly simple bivariate comparisons of estimates among different groups of students. These comparisons were tested using Student's t statistic, at the .05 level of significance. The analysis of students' labor market outcomes also includes a series of regression analyses, using both logistic regression (to predict dichotomous outcome variables) and semi-log regression (to predict a continuous outcome variable with a skewed distribution).

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Who Enters Occupational Education

The first section of the report focuses on the characteristics of students who enter occupational education. The characteristics of these students are important not just to describe occupational students, but also to provide a context in which to interpret their educational progress and outcomes. This section examines students with different educational intentions as of 1995–96. Three groups of subbaccalaureate students are compared—those intending to earn

  • occupational certificates;
  • occupational associate's degrees; and
  • academic associate's degrees.2

The main question addressed in this section is:

Who are the students who enter occupational education programs and how do they compare to other students in postsecondary education?

Beginning occupational students (combining those seeking either a certificate or an associate's degree) in 1995–96 were predominantly female (57 percent), with 16 percent being Black and 9 percent Hispanic. Their average age was 24. Ten percent had parents who had not completed high school, 46 percent had parents who had completed high school, and 44 percent had parents with a college degree. Over half (56 percent) delayed their enrollment into postsecondary education (entering one or more years after high school completion), 60 percent enrolled full time, and 45 percent worked while enrolled.

Occupational subbaccalaureate students were more likely than academic subbaccalaureate students to be female and to be Black. Occupational subbaccalaureate students were also more likely than academic subbaccalaureate students to have completed high school with a General Educational Development (GED) credential and to have parents with lower educational backgrounds. Occupational students were also older and more likely to have delayed their enrollment than were academic subbaccalaureate students. Although no differences were detected in these students' tendency to enroll full time or to work while enrolled, occupational students were more likely than their academic peers to self-identify as "enrolled employees" rather than "working students." Occupational students also had higher tuition costs than academic subbaccalaureate students and were more likely than their academic peers to enroll in for-profit institutions.

On some characteristics, these differences between occupational and academic subbaccalaureate students disappear when one compares only students who are seeking an associate's degree (rather than those seeking a certificate). For other characteristics, both occupational certificate and associate's degree seekers are different from academic associate's degree seekers. Even on these characteristics, however, occupational certificate students often stand out in that they have different backgrounds from both academic and occupational associate's degree seekers.

More specifically, occupational and academic associate's degree seekers differ only in terms of the percentage who are Black, the type of institution attended, tuition costs, whether they delay enrollment, and whether they view themselves as "enrolled employees." Occupational certificate students, in comparison, differ from academic associate's degree seekers on the measures listed immediately above as well as age, sex, educational background, parents' educational background, family socioeconomic status (SES), full-time enrollment, full-time work status, and whether they view themselves as "working students." They also differ from occupational associate's degree seekers on all of these measures except sex, family SES, full- time enrollment, and full-time work status. Thus, the overall differences in student background between subbaccalaureate occupational and academic students (i.e., age, sex, educational background, parents' educational background) largely reflect differences in the background of occupational certificate students versus the two groups of associate's degree seekers. (The proportion of students who are Black is the notable exception.) In comparison, only one of the enrollment characteristics examined here (i.e., percent who consider themselves "working students") reflects differences in occupational certificate students' enrollment patterns. Other enrollment differences—the type of institution attended, tuition costs, delayed enrollment, and whether students consider themselves "enrolled employees"—reflect differences among both occupational certificate and associate's degree seeking students as compared to academic associate's degree seekers, although occupational certificate students tend to be the outliers on these measures as well.

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Student Persistence and Completion

Obtaining a postsecondary credential and persisting toward a credential are important educational outcomes and are examined in the second section of the report. This section addresses the following questions:

To what extent do occupational students persist in and complete postsecondary education over a 6-year time period? How do their persistence and completion rates compare to other postsecondary students?

As of 2001, 60 percent of 1995–96 beginning students who intended to earn a subbaccalaureate credential in occupational areas had earned a postsecondary credential or were still enrolled in school. Forty-eight percent of these credential seekers had earned a credential.

Although occupational students had a lower persistence and attainment rate than baccalaureate students, this appears to be a general subbaccalaureate versus baccalaureate difference; both occupational and academic subbaccalaureate students persist or attain at lower rates than their baccalaureate peers but are not measurably different from each other. The same pattern is found when looking at only credential attainment. However, these findings mask one important difference among the subbaccalaureate groups: Occupational associate's degree seeking students are more likely than their academic counterparts to "downgrade" their credential when they attain one—that is, to get a certificate rather than a degree. This downgrading is one reason academic associate's degree seekers are more likely than their occupational counterparts to obtain at least an associate's degree; another reason for this attainment difference is that academic associate's degree seekers switch to occupational associate's degrees at a relatively high rate. Finally, occupational certificate students fare better than occupational associate's degree seekers, as they are more likely than both groups of associate's degree seekers to earn a credential over a 6-year period.

To what extent do occupational students meet or exceed their initial credential expectations? How do they compare to other postsecondary students on this measure of success? When students do not attain their intended credential, what do they do instead?

Most occupational students who earned a credential met or exceeded their initial credential goal. However, these students do not fare as well as baccalaureate students on this measure. Occupational students are not only less likely than baccalaureate students to attain a credential within 6 years of initial enrollment, but even among those who do attain a credential, occupational credential seekers are less likely than their baccalaureate counterparts to meet or exceed their initial credential goal, as 80 percent of the former met or exceeded their initial goal, compared to 93 percent of the latter. Occupational students compare more favorably to academic subbaccalaureate students. Just as no differences were detected in the percentage of occupational and academic subbaccalaureate students who attained a credential, there were also no differences detected in the rates at which these students met or exceeded their credential goal when they did earn a credential. However, occupational associate's degree seekers were less likely than academic associate's degree seekers to meet or exceed their credential goal when they earned a credential.

Occupational certificate students who started in 1995–96 and did not attain a certificate by 2001 were more likely to drop out of school than to remain in school until 2001. Among associate's degree seekers who did not meet their initial credential goal, academic students were more likely than their occupational peers to switch their area of study (into occupational education), while occupational students were more likely to downgrade to a certificate.

Why do occupational students leave postsecondary education without attaining a credential? Do their reasons for leaving differ from those of other postsecondary students?

The most common reason for leaving without a credential given by the 40 percent of occupational students who had done so by 2001 was job or financial demands, followed by family demands and moving to another city or state. At least the first two of these reasons for leaving could also motivate students to switch to a shorter educational program (downgrade), as well as to leave school.

Compared to baccalaureate students, both academic and occupational subbaccalaureate students are more likely to report leaving for a variety of reasons, including job or financial demands, family demands, moving, and having taken the classes they desire (even though all of these students had originally said they were seeking a credential).3 In contrast, occupational and academic subbaccalaureate students report leaving school for similar reasons, although academic subbaccalaureate students are less likely to report leaving due to dissatisfaction or academic problems than are occupational students. Finally, occupational certificate students are less likely than other subbaccalaureate students to report leaving due to job or financial demands.

What is th distribution of credentials attained by beginning postsecondary students? What percentage earned occupational credentials?

Among the 55 percent of 1995–96 beginning credential-seeking students who obtained a credential by 2001, 37 percent earned an occupational credential, with 21 percent earning an occupational certificate and 18 percent earning an occupational associate's degree (2 percent earned both). Academic subbaccalaureate credentials were less common, with 7 percent of completers earning these credentials. Occupational fields were also relatively common among those earning baccalaureate degrees; 35 percent of all completers earned baccalaureate degrees in career fields (equivalent to occupational fields at the subbaccalaureate level) compared to 25 percent who earned academic baccalaureate degrees.

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Labor Market Outcomes

Ultimately, postsecondary occupational education is expected to provide labor market benefits for the students who complete such an education. Thus, the final section of the report compares the labor market outcomes of students who earned occupational credentials to those who were seeking such credentials but had not earned them as of 2001. Two types of analyses were done in this section—the first was a simple bivariate comparison of student groups (as in the rest of the report), and the second was regression analysis. The regression analysis tests whether earning an occupational credential or years of postsecondary education completed are related to selected labor market outcomes (employment rate, full-time employment among labor force members, and workers' salaries) after controlling for a number of student background characteristics. Using students' self-reports of their labor force status in 2001, this section answers the following questions:

To what extent do occupational program completers participate in the labor market and to what extent are they employed? How do occupational completers compare to noncompleters on these employment characteristics? How do occupational associate's degree completers compare to certificate completers?

Labor force participation rate. The labor force participation rate was 94 percent for occupational certificate completers and 93 percent for occupational associate's degree completers. No measurable differences were found between occupational certificate completers and noncompleters, between occupational associate's degree completers and noncompleters, or between occupational certificate and associate's degree completers in the percentage of students who were in the labor force in 2001.

Employment rate. Overall, 87 percent of both occupational certificate completers and occupational associate's degree completers were employed in 2001. No measurable difference was found in the employment rates of associate's degree completers and noncompleters, but occupational certificate completers had a higher rate of employment than did noncompleters. This difference was not found in the regression analysis, however, suggesting that the difference in employment rates is associated with student background differences that are controlled for in the regression, rather than with the attainment of an occupational certificate.

Full-time employment. Seventy-three percent of occupational certificate completers and 79 percent of occupational associate's degree completers worked full time in 2001. Employed occupational certificate completers were less likely than employed occupational associate's degree completers to work full time (84 versus 91 percent, respectively). It is unclear, however, whether this difference is unique to program completers, as a difference of similar size— although not statistically significant—was detected among occupational certificate and associate's degree noncompleters. For both occupational certificate and occupational associate's degree students, completers were not found to differ from noncompleters in their likelihood of working full time. This was true both among occupational students overall and among those who were employed. Similarly, in the regression analysis, no relationship was found between either credential attainment or years of education and the outcome of full-time employment (among workers).

Unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for both groups of occupational program completers was 7 percent. No measurable differences were found in the employment rate for any of the student groups (certificate versus associate's degree completers, and completers versus noncompleters at each credential level).

To what extent are occupational program completers employed in jobs related to their field of study? Are occupational completers more likely to have related jobs than are noncompleters? How do occupational associate's degree completers and occupational certificate completers compare on this measure?

Most occupational completers who worked (70 percent) reported that they were employed in a job related to their field of study. Occupational associate's degree completers were more likely than occupational associate's degree noncompleters to work in a job related to their field of study (75 versus 43 percent, respectively). Although 68 percent of occupational certificate completers worked in a job related to their field of study, compared to 58 percent of occupational certificate noncompleters, this difference was not statistically significant, possibly due to the relatively large standard error for occupational certificate noncompleters.

What is the average salary earned by occupational program completers, and how does this compare to the salary earned by noncompleters? Do occupational associate's degree completers earn a higher salary than certificate completers?

The average 2001 salary reported by occupational certificate completers was $25,900, lower than the average salary reported by occupational associate's degree completers, at $30,100. However, at least some of this difference appears to be due to the higher rate of full- time employment among associate's degree completers. Among full-time workers, there is no measurable difference in the 2001 salaries of these groups.

Credential completion was not found to be related to salary levels, in either the bivariate analysis or a regression analysis that predicted salary from a number of variables, including students' completion status and their years of education. However, the regression analysis did find an interaction effect between years of education and the relatedness of the student's job to his or her education. The interaction revealed that average salary increased with years of education—but only among students who were employed in a job that was related to their education. These findings for credential attainment and years of education suggest a relationship between skill development (rather than credential attainment per se) and labor market outcomes.

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1 Occupational fields of study (referred to as career fields of study at the baccalaureate level) are those that focus on occupation-specific skills and knowledge: agriculture and natural resources; business and marketing; communications and design; computer sciences; education; engineering and architectural sciences; health care; personal and consumer services; public, social, and human services; and trade and industry. Academic fields of study are typically more theoretical and decontextualized (from a labor market perspective). These fields of study are fine and performing arts, humanities, mathematics, science, and social sciences. See exhibit 1.1 in the report for more detail on the subjects included in each field of study.
2 The body of the report also compares baccalaureate and subbaccalaureate students. Baccalaureate students differed from occupational subbaccalaureate students on every measure examined except race/ethnicity.
3 Only occupational subbaccalaureate students differed from baccalaureate students on this last measure.