The transition from high school into postsecondary education and a career has become particularly challenging given today’s complex, fast-moving, and highly technological economy. Even as the national high school graduation rate has improved over the past two decades and many states have raised their graduation requirements, high school graduates without postsecondary credentials and career-specific skills lack work opportunities. Many students, and particularly low-income, minority, and first-generation college students, struggle to attain the credentials needed to reach a comfortable living wage. To combat this problem, one approach widely adopted in the United States is the career academy model. For almost 50 years, career academies have aimed to blend academic rigor, a curriculum spanning college readiness and workplace knowledge, and engaging and relevant experience in the workplace to help prepare students for successful transitions to postsecondary education and, ultimately, to productive and gainful employment.
MDRC’s landmark randomized controlled trial of career academies, starting in the mid-1990s, followed study participants for eight years after high school graduation and found sustained earnings gains for academy participants. Moreover, these labor market impacts were concentrated among young, mostly minority men, a group that, nationally, continues to experience the most severe decline in real earnings. In the years since that early study, career academies have proliferated from a few hundred to approximately 7,000 across the United States. This widespread scale-up of career academies amid the vast changes in education and labor markets over the past 20 years gives rise to new questions about career academies’ impact on young people’s education and employment outcomes in the current environment.
To explore these questions, MDRC is conducting a new rigorous study of career academies, in partnership with the California Department of Education and the College & Career Academy Support Network and with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The study will explore the effects of California Partnership Academies (CPAs), which are partially state-funded career academies within high schools across California. Similar to the original study, this study will look at the impact of these programs on high school graduation, postsecondary success, and employment and wage outcomes for eight years after expected high school graduation.