Improving Employment Opportunities for At-Risk Youth: A Critical Examination of Career and Technical Education in the U.S.

Scheinfeld, Aaron [Browse]
Senior thesis
134 pages


Price, Hugh [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Restrictions note
Walk-in Access. This thesis can only be viewed on computer terminals at the Mudd Manuscript Library.
Summary note
Every year, millions of young people in the United States leave high school without the skills necessary for success in today’s job market. Rapid technological change and an education slowdown have left many young people unprepared for today’s jobs, which increasingly demand postsecondary degrees. The failure of U.S. high schools to respond to the changes taking place in the economy is particularly troubling for the most at-risk youth, who are unmotivated, disengaged, and have poor basic skills by the time they reach high school. This is problematic not only for the students themselves, who enter adulthood with little chance of moving up the socioeconomic ladder, but also for the country, which bears the social costs caused by these disconnected individuals. These challenges suggest that the U.S. could benefit from a renewed approach to careeroriented education for at-risk high school students. This Thesis asks whether an increased focus on vocational education, known today as Career and Technical Education (CTE), can connect the most at-risk high school students to quality employment opportunities, and if so, whether there are specific approaches that are more effective than others. The federal government has funded high school vocational programs for nearly a century, and recent evaluations of school-based CTE have been relatively positive. Yet, America’s persistently high dropout rate suggests that not enough is being done. Case studies of three models of school-based CTE demonstrate that programs are successful when they connect academics with career instruction, provide guidance and counseling, and develop connections with employers and postsecondary schools. Nevertheless, these models also show that school-based CTE does not provide sufficient access to students who are most in need. A work-based model of CTE, in which students spend the majority of their time in the workplace, presents a possible alternative to the school-based approach. Workbased CTE, as examined through youth apprenticeship, has several benefits, such as the potential to improve social skills, create clearer links between school and work, and facilitate the attainment of skills certifications. Germany’s youth apprenticeship system demonstrates that such an approach is feasible and scalable under the right conditions. However, evidence from Germany also suggests that its system does not benefit the most disadvantaged youth. Some education reformers have suggested that the U.S. could adopt its own youth apprenticeship system to accommodate at-risk youth. An examination of such an approach in the U.S. context reveals, though, that it also faces barriers to wide scale implementation and may not provide sufficient access to at-risk students. The findings presented in this Thesis suggest that high-quality secondary CTE can improve the prospects of disadvantaged students, but both school- and work-based models of CTE face the challenge of being accessible and accommodating to the most atrisk students, who are often unintentionally excluded from these programs. As policymakers consider strategies for improving the employment opportunities for at-risk youth, they must focus not only on developing targeted and robust models of CTE, but also on devising policies to encourage and facilitate participation in these programs.

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