Introduction: Educational Outcomes of Occupational Postsecondary Students
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The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 is designed to encourage and improve occupational education, with a particular emphasis on this kind of education at the sub-baccalaureate level. In evaluating the effectiveness of the current legislation and in developing ideas for reauthorization, Congress needs to understand how the educational experiences of occupational students compare with the experiences of students who are in academic programs.

This report addresses a specific issue within that broad question. It considers whether postsecondary occupational students, particularly at the sub-baccalaureate level, are more likely than other types of postsecondary students to achieve their educational goals. We first analyze what proportion of occupational students who set out to earn a particular certificate or degree actually complete that credential. We then compare these findings with similar findings about postsecondary students enrolled in academic programs.

The data for this report were provided primarily by two longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The first is the Beginning Postsecondary Student Longitudinal Study (BPS89), which follows a sample of students who entered postsecondary school for the first time in 1989 from their enrollment through the 1993-94 academic year (NCES 1996). The second dataset is the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), which follows a sample of students from 1988, when they were in eighth grade, through the year 2000. (See appendix A for a brief description of these datasets and their survey design.) Thus, we could evaluate students' progress in postsecondary education within a five-year window for BPS89 and within a six-to-eight-year window for NELS. We also made use of a third dataset, BPS96, which follows a sample of students who entered postsecondary education in 1995 through the 1997-98 academic year (NCES 2000). Because this dataset provides only a three-year window, it is not well suited for an analysis of college completion. Nevertheless, BPS96 does provide more recent data than the other datasets, and it contains some interesting questions not found in NELS and BPS89. Therefore, when we used BPS96, we analyzed persistence rather than completion, and we argue that, to complete, students must at least persist.

To conduct our analysis of the educational outcomes of occupational sub-baccalaureate students, we developed a general model of the factors that predict educational attainment for first-time college students. The model includes student characteristics such as gender, race, age, socioeconomic status (SES), and academic skills as well as information about the timing and sequencing of a student's educational experience. (The sequencing factors account for whether students attend part time, interrupt their schooling, delay their enrollment or work while they are enrolled. We call them educational "pathway" features.) Therefore, as a by-product of this comprehensive analysis of the effects of occupational education, we also generate conclusions about the effects of demographic, educational and pathway characteristics on educational goal achievement as well as how those characteristics interact with the academic or occupational major. As a result, we can consider, for example, whether a student's race or enrollment interruptions have a different influence for occupational and academic students.

An important feature of our study took into account students' goals, and thus, we divided the datasets into three groups: students pursuing a certificate diploma, an associate degree or a baccalaureate degree. Students were categorized within these groups according to their degree expectations and the institutions where they were enrolled. We conducted separate analyses for each of these groups for two reasons. First, the demographics characteristics and goals of these groups differ significantly (Bailey et al. forthcoming). Second, we believe that the process and determinants of retention and completion for these groups differ.

The report develops as follows. Section II reviews the research literature related to postsecondary persistence and completion. We highlight what factors have been found to significantly affect degree attainment and what the previous research found with respect to how occupational students fare in relation to their academic peers. Section III discusses how we identified the three groups of students and briefly describes similarities and differences among the samples we used. Section IV provides a descriptive analysis of the student groups and describes retention and college completion for each group. We also describe the variables used in our analyses and the composition of the groups in terms of these features. Section V specifies our empirical approach, discusses our findings and extends the analysis to focus on the effect of occupational education on special populations such as academically and economically disadvantaged associate students. Section VI provides a thorough analysis of one- and three-year persistence rates, with an emphasis on occupational students seeking associate degrees. It also discusses the findings and integrates them with those from the completion analyses of section V. Finally, we summarize our findings and discuss policy implications in section VII.

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Last Modified: 06/10/2005