For a century, career and technical education programs have given non-college-bound students hands-on training for jobs right after high school. Minority and low-income students are often tracked into vocational programs rather than put on a college track: decisions which only serve to reconfirm biases that some groups of kids are not fit for college. But there’s also evidence that skill-building at the high school level for careers in fields like information technology and health sciences improves student outcomes: Students with greater exposure to quality career and technical programs are more likely to graduate from high school and they are just as likely to pursue a four-year degree as their peers.

Embracing vocational training along with college preparedness may be a key factor in how well a school prepares students for college success. Surprisingly, GreatSchools’ 2018 College Success Award survey did not find that a college-for-all philosophy was a predictor of student success. In fact, non-award-winners were more likely (70 percent) to report having a “college-for-all” philosophy than award-winners (58 percent). When asked what the principal’s highest priority for the school is, only 22 percent of award-winning schools and 19 percent of non-winners reported that college readiness is the principal’s highest priority.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the award-winning high schools we spotlighted offer a glimpse at how college success and multiple postsecondary pathways need not be at odds. A majority of these schools have robust vocational education programs that are stigma-free. All students are invited to participate in both vocational education courses and advanced academic coursework.

At College Success Award-winning Newbury Junior and Senior High School in Newbury, OH, vocational classes are not just for kids who are planning to skip college, they’re seen as a strategy to build achievement and motivation for college-bound kids. The school has a strong partnership with Auburn Career Center, a nearby technical school, and many college-bound students take advantage of Auburn’s offerings to enhance their skills and build stronger college applications. Likewise, many students who participate in technical learning courses also enroll in courses that result in college credit.

At Arabia Mountain High School, a science and technology magnet in Lithonia, GA, robust vocational education is part of the schools’ focus on connecting learning to real life. The school, which serves a population of 97 percent African American and 51 percent students from low-income families, offers a culinary program, an environmental program (complete with outdoor classes in the Arabia Mountain Preserve), and a medical program (with a model hospital room), among others. At Arabia, students are encouraged not to choose between college or career but to choose both — taking rigorous academic classes to prepare for college and at the same time, pursuing technical classes that culminate in skills they can use to get a job after high school (and maybe even help pay for college).

Inspiring, relevant learning

As high school academic curriculum grows more rigorous, so too does it come under criticism for moving toward abstract rather than practical learning. Students often pursue rigorous high school course loads but still have little idea about how they might apply what they’re learning to life beyond the classroom. In this context, high-quality, applied-learning opportunities can promote college success by helping students make more informed decisions about their postsecondary plans.

Exposure to the real-world skills and work involved in a particular career path can inspire a love for a particular course of study and help students better understand what they’re undertaking to when they pursue a particular path. It can also give them the tools they need to be more nimble in preparation for a job market that promises multiple careers over a lifetime.

This article is part of a series exploring best-practice approaches used by recipients of GreatSchools’ College Success Award. The College Success Award honors public high schools in nine states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more best practices here.

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Updated: April 29, 2019