In urban high schools, too many students who manage to graduate are unprepared for postsecondary education or the world of work. And these students – especially young men – often enter a labor market that offers them few opportunities for good jobs. Yet most high school reform efforts today focus solely on boosting academics. Recent findings from a long-term study of Career Academies – a popular high school reform that combines academic offerings with career development opportunities – shows that choosing between academics and career preparation is a false dichotomy. Career Academies produce sustained employment and earnings gains, without sacrificing academics. In particular, Career Academies appear to offer young men a boost – comparable to the earnings premium of a year or two of postsecondary education – that puts them on a better earnings trajectory.

What’s Special About This Study?

These results come from one of the first random assignment studies – the gold standard of program evaluation – ever conducted in a high school setting. MDRC has followed students in nine high schools around the country from when they entered ninth grade until eight years after their scheduled graduation. More than 80 percent of students in the sample are black or Hispanic.

What Are the Most Important Findings?

  • Career Academies produced sustained earnings gains that averaged 11 percent (or $2,088) more per year for program participants than for individuals in the control group – a $16,704 boost in total earnings over the eight years of follow-up.
  • These impacts on earnings are concentrated among young men and students at risk of academic failure. Young men saw an annual earnings gain of 17 percent (or $3,731) – or nearly $30,000 over eight years.
  • This study shows that career development in high schools does not have to come at the expense of academic preparation. More than 90 percent of the students graduated from high school or received a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and half earned a postsecondary degree or credential.
  • Participants in Career Academies were more likely to be living independently with children and a spouse or a partner. Young men were more likely to be married.