JITE v32n2 - Is Vocational Education Still Necessary? Investigating the Educational Effectiveness of the College Prep Curriculum

Volume 32, Number 2
Winter 1995

Is Vocational Education Still Necessary? Investigating the Educational Effectiveness of the College Prep Curriculum

Kenneth Gray
The Pennsylvania State University
Wen-Jyh Wang
The Pennsylvania State University
Sharon Malizia
The Pennsylvania State University

This research investigated the educational effectiveness of the traditional college preparatory (college prep) high school program of study. Until recently this was not a very pressing educational issue. The college prep curriculum enrolled fewer than half of all students and those enrolled were mostly the academically blessed. Parents, educators, and elected officials were happy as long as this elite group succeeded in getting into reputable colleges; meanwhile, this success was (and still is) taken as evidence of the educational effectiveness of the college prep program. Similarly, no one was very concerned about the high school education received by those who were less academically gifted. As long as they did not drop out in attention-getting numbers, the less blessed were viewed as relatively unimportant to the future of the nation. Many of these students enrolled in various types of vocational education or home economics courses, and their parents were seldom on school boards to raise questions about the quality of the education provided to their children.

Times have changed. The aspirations of high school students have changed dramatically over the last twenty years. In 1972, 63% of high school seniors in a National Center for Educational Statistics ( NCES ) sample reported that they intended to go to a four-year college and/or graduate school; in 1992, 95% said they planned to continue their education: 84% of those wanted to attend four-year colleges ( NCES, 1993b ). This change in aspirations has had a predictable effect on the distribution of students among the different high school programs of study. Between 1982 and 1990, the percentage of all high school students who reported being on the college track increased from 10% to 64% ( NCES , 1993a). An additional 37% said they were in the general curriculum, but most of these students were actually dabblers in the college prep program. Meanwhile, by 1990, less than 10% of all high school students identified themselves as being enrolled in vocational education ( NCES , 1993a). In fact, the only group that showed increases in credits earned in vocational education were low achieving or disabled students ( National Assessment of Vocational Education [NAVE], 1994 ). Even among those who took vocational education, the number of students who completed a coherent sequence of courses that would lead to labor market advantage declined ( NAVE, 1994 ). The evidence suggests that the very existence of vocational education is in danger, at least in the form that has existed since the 1960s. While some attention has been paid to declining vocational education enrollments (see NAVE, 1994 ), the literature is devoid of any questioning of the educational effectiveness of the college prep program for those who, in the past, would have taken vocational education.

While reformers postulate about restructuring the American high school, a "quiet" restructuring has been taking place as increasing percentages of all high school students select the college prep program of study and enrollments in vocational education decline. This development has gone largely unnoticed, or if noticed, has not been questioned.

The college prep program of study was never designed to educate the majority of all high school students; it was created for the academically blessed, specifically those who had both the aspirations and the ability to be competitive in the college admissions process and academically successful in college. But now the percentage of students (including those from the academic middle) who take the college prep curriculum has increased dramatically, while the curriculum and instructional modalities remain about the same.

A consensus seems to have developed that assumes that the college prep program will prepare all who enroll equally well, regardless of their academic ability. Perhaps educators simply do not want to stir up controversy; if parents think their children are preparing for college, and colleges are admitting them, why look for problems? Yet, what if a large number of them are not well prepared, graduating without the credentials needed to be successful in higher education or in work? What if large numbers of those who do go on to higher education end up in expensive remedial courses and ultimately drop out? Or, what if those who do go to work without vocational education end up in dead-end jobs? If any of these scenarios is true, there should be cause for concern about the growing percentages of all high school students who enroll in the college track. These questions were the focus of this study. The following additional background information is provided to give the reader an historical frame of reference as well as a present educational policy perspective for the study.


Before the turn of the century, when there were few high schools and those who attended them were mostly the children of the affluent, there was one curriculum-the classical curriculum. However, at the turn of the century, as high school populations began to swell and children from working-class families began to attend in increasing numbers, progressive reformers (particularly middle-level industrialists and urban settlement house workers) argued that the classical curriculum did not meet the needs of these new students and was responsible for high drop-out rates. The public schools were severely criticized for being inefficient because they offered nothing of value to the majority of students.

The Origins of Curriculum Differentiation

Public high schools responded to charges of inefficiency at the turn of the century by abandoning the common curriculum structure and adding new programs of study. Beginning with the manual training movement, then business education, and finally home economics, agriculture, and vocational/industrial education, the curriculum became differentiated. Aided by a new class of educators called guidance counselors, students were able to select from among these different curricula or tracks based on their career goals. This philosophy was championed by David Snedden, then Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, who suggested that educators make a concerted effort to "determine the probable destination of each individual in society and to prescribe a curriculum especially suited to promote his ultimate efficiency" ( Drost, 1967, p. 4 ). As described by Powell, Farrar, and Cohen, by the turn of the century "the high school curriculum had begun to resemble a species of academic jungle creeper, spreading thickly and quickly in many directions at once" ( 1985, p. 240 ).

From the beginning, curriculum differentiation was viewed with suspicion. The American Federation of Labor supported the industrial education movement with great reluctance, fearing that it was a plot by industrialists to ensure that the children of working people were not upwardly mobile. John Dewey worried that a differentiated curriculum would isolate students and thus subvert the democratic nature of the schools he envisioned. In 1892, Charles Eliot, then President of Harvard, summed up the suspicions that linger to this day when he stated that the public (parents) did not want children sorted by occupations while in public schools and treated differently based on these "prophecies." He asked the fundamental question, "Who is to make these prophecies?" (as cited in Boyer, 1983, p. 326 ). Ninety-one years later, Boyer wrote that "putting students into boxes can no longer be defended" and went on to recommend eliminating the vocational and general tracks ( 1983, p. 127 ).

Contemporary Common Curriculum Debates

While not all reformers recommend the total elimination of vocational education, they seem to agree with the need for a common, integrated, academic core curriculum. Sizer ( 1992 ) summarizes the attitudes of common curriculum advocates when he states that the goals of this common curriculum should be the same for all students "without exception" and that "those who seem weakly disposed or who take to serious intellectual effort with difficulty, need more of it rather than being switched to something less demanding or pressing" ( 1992, p. 142 ).

Support for this point of view was provided by other researchers who reported the deleterious effects of tracking (and thus vocational education) on the levels of academic courses taken and the social alienation of high school students who are not in the college prep program ( Oaks, 1985 ; Page & Valli, 1990 ). Still other researchers argue that the curriculum should be integrated to end the Taylorist/elitist structure of high schools where "students are roughly divided into winners and losers" ( Boyer, 1983, p. 206 ) or where high school educators "treat some students as future peers and the rest as future subordinates" ( Gray, 1993, p. 372 ).

Finally, and perhaps most influential of all arguments for a common curriculum are a multitude of reports delineating skills that workers will need in the future. The American Society for Training and Development report, Workplace Basics: Skills Employers Want ( Carnevale, Gainer, & Meltzer, 1989 ), and the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report ( U.S. Department of Labor, 1991 ) are good examples. Without exception, these reports cite the need for a core of standard academic competencies as the foundation for all other occupational skills; occupationally-specific vocational education is largely unmentioned in these documents.

While the common versus differentiated curriculum debate continues among educators and other policy makers, the issue is being decided by a third party. Students and parents are making the decision in favor of the common curriculum approach as more high school students enroll in the college prep program of study. There are worrisome signs, however, that for many this decision may turn out to be a poor one.

Instructional Effectiveness of College Prep

Some national data suggest that the traditional college prep curriculum may not be meeting the educational needs of all those who are now enrolling in it. One indicator is the rising percentage of graduating seniors who indicate believing that they will have to take remedial courses in college. In the 1993 survey of entering college freshmen, almost one-third indicated that they expected to have to take remedial courses in mathematics ( American Council on Education, 1993 ). Faculty at the nation's colleges and universities were even more pessimistic; only 20% of faculty at American institutions of higher education believed that freshmen were adequately prepared to communicate in writing and only 15% felt these students were adequately prepared for college mathematics ( "The Academic Perspective," June 22, 1994 ). So dissatisfied are colleges and high schools with the academic skills of entering freshmen that Education Week ( Pitsch, 1994 ) published a special section on the need for educators at both levels to stop pointing fingers at one another and join in an "alliance for learning" to improve the situation.

Then there is the thorny issue of how many actually graduate. Currently at division one NCAA institutions, most of which are public universities, only 56% of all matriculating students graduate within six years ( "Student Athletes," 1994 ). In some states the persistence rate is much worse: For example, in Pennsylvania, state data suggest that less than 40% of those who start college actually graduate ( Pennsylvania Department of Education, 1992 ). These data suggest that the increasing drift of students into the college prep program may be problematic.

Purpose of the Study

This research was designed to investigate just how effective the college prep program was in reaching its objective-preparing students to be competitive in college admissions and to be academically successful after admission. Specifically, the purpose of this study was to conduct a comprehensive follow-up of a recent group of high school graduates who had completed the college track, in order to answer two research questions:

  1. Of the high school graduates in the study population, what percentage graduated with academically competitive credentials associated with readiness to do college-level academic work?
  2. What were the post secondary educational or occupational endeavors of those high school graduates who failed to earn competitive academic credentials, and what degree of success did they achieve in these endeavors?


This study used an ex post facto quantitative case study approach. The researchers studied the secondary and post secondary experiences of all 1991 graduates from the college prep program at seven purposely selected public high schools in affluent suburban districts. These high schools were chosen because all but 7% of the student body were enrolled in the college track. Indicative of the higher education mentality at these schools, 81% of the students took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)-twice the national average. Studying these high schools had three advantages: (a) virtually the entire cohort of seniors were enrolled in the college prep program, (b) there was no formal general curriculum, and (c) only 7% of graduates had participated in a sequential vocational education program offered at a regional center. Thus, these high schools provided a unique opportunity to investigate the effectiveness of the college prep program of study in preparing the growing cohort of students who enroll. Virtually all students at these high schools were preparing for college.

Data Collection

Data were collected from two sources. First, information was taken from the high school transcripts of the entire population of 1991 graduates from the seven high schools that participated in the study ( n = 1310). Transcript data included grade point averages, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and the highest levels of mathematics, science, and foreign language taken. Clerical staff from the seven participating high schools' guidance departments were trained to encode data obtained from the high school transcript of each graduate. These data were used to address research question one-to determine how many of those who participated in the college prep program graduated with the academic credentials associated with success in college.

The second source of data was from a questionnaire mailed to one half of the population ( n = 652). This sample was stratified by class rank to ensure that students at all levels of academic success were equally represented. While the focus of the study was on the post secondary experiences of marginal college prep high school students, the survey sample was selected randomly from the entire population so that the experiences of the target group of students could be compared with those who were more academically successful in high school. The Dillman ( 1978 ) survey research methodology was used. Prizes were offered to increase the response rate, and a telephone follow-up of non-respondents was conducted to ensure that the non-responses did not result in a biased sample.

The questions asked in the survey were developed with input from educators at the seven participating high schools. The survey instrument was field-tested with a group of college freshmen, none of whom had graduated from any of the seven high schools. The survey instrument was designed to collect information about two events. First, what endeavor-higher education, full-time employment, etc.-had graduates pursued the first year after high school graduation and how successful had they been? Specifically, the questionnaire asked graduates to specify their activities on Oct. 1, 1992, and then asked follow-up questions based on whether or not they were enrolled in higher education institutions. Second, the survey contained questions designed to obtain respondents' evaluations of both their social and academic high school experiences. The questionnaire was sent out in August, 1992, one year after the graduation of students in the study. This date was chosen to determine not only what graduates had done since graduation, but how successful they had been in their endeavors during that first year.

The two sets of data (transcript and survey results) were merged into a single data set, thereby creating a longitudinal file of secondary and post secondary experiences. Data were analyzed in two phases. In phase one, a set of academic criteria (see Figure 1 ) was used to assign all graduates to one of three levels of academic competitiveness based on their high school academic record and SAT scores. In phase two, results from the survey were stratified by these three academic competitiveness categories to compare the experiences of those in the academic middle with their more successful peers.


The authors recognize several limitations to this approach. First is the assumption that all graduates who were enrolled in the college prep program of study received a common experience that can then be assessed. As Hanson ( 1990 ) suggested, assuming that the college prep program of study is a "uniform phenomena with high standards" for all enrolled is probably unfounded. This study found, as did Powell's ( 1985 ), that in all of the high schools in the study the college prep curriculum has been bifurcated by advanced placement and honors courses, which some argue is the real college prep curriculum of old. Nevertheless, in the high schools studied, 92% were enrolled in a program of study whose purpose was preparation for college; while they did not all take the same courses, the program of study still had a single goal-preparation for higher education. Thus it seems reasonable to investigate how many were actually achieving the objective of the program of study-credentials that predict college admissions and academic success, even though actual courses taken varied among those enrolled.

A second limitation is the unique suburban, affluent nature of the schools studied and thus the limited validity to generalize results to all high schools. Given this limitation, this research should be viewed as exploratory, and similar studies should be repeated using a national data set of all high school graduates. However, it should be pointed out that the high schools studied were considered among the best in the nation. Thus, how students fared in these schools would arguably be the high watermark for the effectiveness of the college prep program of study.


Data for this study were collected from high school transcripts of all 1,310 graduates of the class of 1991 from the seven suburban affluent high schools participating in the study and from a questionnaire mailed to a 50% ( n = 652) sample of the population one year after graduation. Using a variety of traditional techniques, as well as a prize lottery for those who responded and a special lottery for those who responded early, a 68% response rate was ultimately obtained. A telephone follow-up was conducted of non-respondents to ensure that there was no sampling bias. A longitudinal data file was developed by combining data from the two sources. The male/female distribution in the population was almost identical. The numbers of minorities in the population were insufficient for statistical analysis. Descriptive statistical methods were used to analyze the data. The results are reported below in the order of the research questions.

High School Experience

Research Question 1. Of the High School Graduates in the Study Population, What Percentage Graduated with Academically Competitive Credentials Associated with Readiness to do College-level Academic Work?

If the stated goal of this curriculum was to prepare students for meeting admissions standards at competitive colleges and universities, how many were so prepared? The transcript data were sorted using the criteria of having a cumulative school GPA of B or better and a combined SAT score of 1,000 or better, and enrollment in a minimal college prep sequence of courses (three years of college mathematics, typically through Algebra II; two years of college prep science, and two years of the same foreign language). This has been argued to be the minimum set of credentials to justify applying to competitive colleges and to predict academic success at competitive colleges. When the data were sorted, only 30% of the student population had these competitive credentials (see Figure 1 ).

Figure 1.
Percentage of High School Graduates Earning
Competitive or Semi-competitive Academic
Credentials for College Admissions

Because of the current trend of virtually open admissions at the majority of colleges and universities, and the resultant lowering of admissions standards, a second count was conducted using a less rigorous set of credentials-the same sequence of courses, but with a C average and a combined SAT score of only 800. While these credentials would not make a student competitive for admissions at highly selective colleges, they would be minimal predictors of ability to do college-level academic work. Using these criteria, an additional 24% of the study population was identified as having these semi-competitive credentials.

The net result was that forty-six percent (46%) of the students ( n =601) graduated with neither competitive nor semi-competitive credentials. Specifically, they failed to maintain a C average and/or failed to complete the minimum college prep course sequence, and/or (if they took the SAT) failed to get a combined score of 800 or more. Thus, almost one-half of all graduates were found to be unprepared not only to compete for admissions at highly selective colleges, but by even the most liberal standards, unprepared to do college academic work. Only 5% of this group had taken vocational education.

The experiences of these 601 academically non-competitive students ultimately became the focus of the study. We began by examining the course-taking patterns in the critical areas of mathematics and science.

Mathematics and science course-taking patterns . Table 1 cross-tabulates the highest levels and typical titles of mathematics and science courses taken by students in the academically non-competitive group. In comparison to national averages, the levels of mathematics completed by the academically non-competitive group were impressive. Eighty percent (80%) completed at least Algebra I, compared to a 1990 national average of 65%, and 51% completed three years or levels of college prep mathematics (typically through Algebra II), compared to a national average of 35% ( NCES, 1993a, p. 68 ).

The levels of science completed by the academically non-competitive students were not as impressive. Sixty-two percent (62%) never went higher than biology in the science curriculum. Only 14% took physics, the science course most often mentioned as a prerequisite for success in high-skills/high-wage occupations. It should be noted, however, that this level of participation in science courses still exceeds that found in studies of vocational education students in the same state where fewer than 1% had taken physics ( Gray, 1991 ).

Table 1
Highest Level of Mathematics and Science Completed by Academically Non-competitive Students

Level and
Typical Course
Level I
Level II
Level III
Physics or
Advanced Biology
Level IV
College Science
Total %
this level

Level I
Gen. Math.
19% 1% 0% 0% 100%
Level II
Algebra I
9% 2% 0% 0% 80%
Level III
10% 5% 2% 0% 67%
Level IV
Algebra II
21% 12% 5% 0% 51%
Level V
3% 3% 6% 1% 13%
Level VI
College Math.
0% 0% 1% 0% 1%
Total % reaching
only this level
100% 38% 15% 1% 100%

( N = 601)

These results suggest that academically non-competitive students in the college prep curriculum do take higher levels of mathematics and science than expected based on a comparison with national data. These students seem to participate at higher levels in other areas of the curricula as well; for example, 45% took two years of the same foreign language. This suggests that when virtually all students participate in the college prep curriculum, the average completion levels do increase in mathematics and foreign language courses and to a lesser degree in science.

SAT results . Eighty-one percent (81%) of the 1,310 graduates in the study population had taken the SAT. Despite this participation rate, which is twice the national average, the average score for all those taking the test was 957, compared to a national average of 896 for the same graduating class. Sixty-nine percent (69%) of the non-competitive group took the SAT. Their performance is interesting for two reasons: First, it is a crude proxy for mastery of traditional college prep academic content, as well as reading ability and both conceptual and analytical thinking skills-all of which are instructional goals of the college prep curriculum. Second, SAT scores are a limited, but nonetheless statistically valid, predictor of success in higher education, the outcome goal of the college prep program of study participated in by these students, and thus an indicator of the effectiveness of this program of study for this cohort.

The average verbal and mathematics SAT scores for the non-competitive group were 365 and 389, respectively, for an average combined score of 754. This relatively poor performance suggests inadequate preparation for college-level work, the goal of the college prep curriculum that all but 5% had taken. These students may have participated in the program, but their SAT results suggest that they were somewhat academically untouched by the experience.

The mathematics score is particularly interesting. Despite the relatively high levels of mathematics courses completed by the non-competitive students, their performance on the SAT mathematics test would suggest that they were not well-prepared. The discrepancy between mathematics course-taking patterns and SAT results leads to speculation that while these students may be taking the courses, they do not master the content. Two other pieces of data support this conjecture: (a) the low C average of this group in mathematics; and (b) of the 56% of this group that went on to higher education-who with few exceptions were those with higher levels of mathematics and who had taken the SAT test-31% had to take remedial mathematics in college.

Attitudes toward high school . The mailed questionnaire contained a series of questions about both the academic and social aspects of the high school experience. In general, there were few statistically significant differences in responses between the academically competitive and non-competitive groups. Several exceptions, however, are worth noting.

Respondents were asked, "Do you agree you got a good education?" While 92% of the academically competitive students answered affirmatively, considerably fewer (76%) non-competitive students felt the same way. Non-competitive students seemed, however, to recognize their responsibility for their lack of academic success; 74% agreed with the statement, "I wish I had worked harder in high school," compared to 45% of competitive students. Other responses suggested that academically non-competitive students lack direction. They were the most likely to agree with the statement, "I wish I had more opportunity to explore careers," and the least likely to agree with the statement, "I felt pressure to get good grades." They were also the group least likely to indicate that parents were the "most influential" in their decisions about their activities during their first year after high school graduation. This lack of direction may partially explain why 40% of the students did not take the SAT, suggesting for some a lack of commitment to going to college-the outcome goal of the curriculum they elected or drifted into.

Social integration . Academically non-competitive students were no more or less alienated from high school than their more academically competitive peers; there were no statistically significant differences in the percentages of students in the three competitive academic groupings indicating agreement with the statement "high school was lonely" (12%) or that they "had few friends" (15%). This finding is important. Oaks ( 1985 ) and others have argued that curriculum differentiation and/or tracking leads to alienation and that this alienation could be reduced by eliminating this practice. Student responses in this study confirm this hypothesis; responses on the survey indicated very little alienation from high school among the respondents, virtually all of whom were in the same college prep curriculum.

However, survey respondents who indicated little social alienation may not necessarily believe that everyone was treated equally. All students, but particularly the average non-competitive students, indicated on the survey that the faculty and administration in their high school did not treat students equally. The academically non-competitive group was most likely (84%) to agree with the questionnaire statement that "some students were treated better than others" in high school, but 78% of the students in all three groups shared this view. The large agreement on this item of the average non-competitive group suggests that these students were the least likely to be among those receiving preferential treatment.

Summarizing the analysis of transcript data, 46% of all students failed to earn credentials that would predict success in higher education, the goal of the college prep program that all but 5% were enrolled in. There were some promising findings: (a) The levels of mathematics and foreign languages, and to a lesser extent science, taken by these students exceeded national averages; and (b) these students were less alienated than would be expected had they been in a different curriculum, such as vocational education. On the other hand, SAT results and their grades in high school suggest many just went through the motions. They took the courses but did not master the content. Nevertheless, it still could be argued that this group of average students was better off than they would have been in a differentiated curriculum such as vocational education. The legitimate test of this assertion would require the measurement of success after graduation. This question was investigated using data collected from the mailed survey of graduates one year after graduation.

Post Secondary Experiences

Research Question 2. What were the Post Secondary Educational or Occupational Endeavors of those High School Graduates Who Failed to Earn Academically Competitive Credentials and What Degree of Success did They Achieve in these Endeavors?

What happens to students who take the college prep course but fail to graduate with credentials that predict success in higher education? The conventional wisdom is that they go to work. National data hint that this may no longer be accurate; in 1991, 62% of all high school graduates across the nation went directly on to higher education ( NCES, 1993a ), while only about 20% went to work. An amazing 95% of a national sample of 1992 graduating seniors reported planning to continue their education beyond high school ( NCES, 1993b ). Obviously, some graduates with mediocre credentials are attending institutions of higher education. The findings from this study confirm this suspicion (see Table 2 ). While non-competitive graduates were the most likely to be working, only 29% were working full-time and an additional 10% were working part-time. The largest group (56%) went on to higher education. The rest (2%) were in the military, full-time homemakers, or physically unable to work.

Table 2
Transcript and Follow-up Data Summary: Academically Non-Competitive Students

High School Experiences: % taking Algebra 81%
% taking Algebra II 51%
% taking Physics 14%
% two years same foreign language 45%
% holding part-time employment 76%
% wished had worked harder 74%
% had more opportunity to explore careers 63%
SAT Scores: Verbal 365
Mathematics 389
% students taking SAT 69%
Postsecondary Experiences:
(status Oct. 1, 1991)
Full-time student 56%
Full-time employment 29%
Part-time and other 15%
Postsecondary Education:
Four-year colleges 47%
Community colleges 38%
Technical schools 15%
% taking remedial courses 46%
% earning sophomore status 52%
% receiving financial aid 41%
Working Full-time: % working in firm < 100 employees 70%
% working in firm < 20 employees 46%
Received formal training 20%
Average salary $14,700

What types of higher education institutions did non-competitive students attend? In light of their poor academic credentials, one would assume that they enrolled mostly in community colleges or two-year technical/business institutes. Again, however, national data suggest that this assumption may be inaccurate. Between 1980-81 and 1990-91, high school enrollment decreased 13% while four-year college enrollments grew by 17% ( NCES, 1993a ). Nevertheless, it was surprising to find that 47% of the non-competitive students who went on to higher education were enrolled in four-year colleges-surprising because all but a few failed to score at least 800 on their SAT tests. Of course, not all went to four-year colleges. Of the three groups, academically non-competitive students were the most likely to attend community colleges (38%), and business and technical schools (15%).

The fact that 56% of the academically average students went on to higher education could be interpreted, at least by those who consider higher education good for all, as an argument for the common curriculum approach. But the real test is not the percentage that went on-open admissions is the de facto policy at the majority of institutions today-but how successful they were academically when they got there. The true test of the effectiveness of the college prep curriculum is not just admission, especially in light of an excess of college seats, but academic success in higher education.

The educational experiences of those in higher education . The mailed questionnaire contained several questions designed to gather self-reported data about respondents' success in higher education. Specifically, we asked for freshman year GPA, enrollment in remedial courses, and whether enough credits had been earned to attain sophomore status. The average freshman year GPA reported by academically non-competitive students was a C. This modest success was tempered, however, when 46% of the non-competitive respondents who went on to higher education reported having to take one or more remedial courses, compared to 4% of students who graduated with competitive credentials. Further doubt was cast on the effectiveness of the college prep curriculum when it was found that 27% of those who graduated with semi-competitive credentials also reported having to take one or more remedial courses. Of the non-competitive students who took remedial courses, the most common (31%) subject they were required to take was remedial mathematics, which is surprising considering the relatively high level of mathematics courses completed by this group. Additionally, 26% had to take remedial work in reading for comprehension. Reading comprehension was apparently the most significant weakness among graduates with semi-competitive credentials; of the 27% of this group of students who had to take remedial courses, 81% had to take remedial English.

In light of the high numbers of academically non-competitive students who had to take remedial courses (courses that typically do not count toward a degree), it is not surprising that only about one-half (52%) of the non-competitive students who went on to higher education returned as sophomores after their freshman year. This lack of progress is more sobering when one considers that 46% of these students were receiving financial aid. Incurring debt to take courses that count toward a degree is burdensome but perhaps justified. Incurring debt for remedial courses that do not count toward a degree is much more difficult to justify and a harsh consequence of going to college with inadequate academic preparation. This raises the question: How satisfied were these students with their academic preparation in the college prep program of study? Survey responses revealed that, compared to students in the two more academically competitive groups, non-competitive students were less satisfied at a statistically significant level with their high school academic preparation in general, and reading comprehension and computer skills in particular (alpha = .05).

The experiences of the full-time employed . Of course not all who graduated with non-competitive academic credentials went on to higher education. Twenty-nine percent went to work, most without any formal preparation. Common curriculum advocates argue that occupational preparation is not necessary. They believe that employers want only sound academic basics and will teach new employees the required skills on the job. The results of this study suggest that this simplistic scenario is a fantasy.

While less than 1% of competitive students and 4% of semi-competitive students worked full-time the year after graduation, 29% of non-competitive students reported working full-time and an additional 10% were employed part-time. Students who reported being full-time employees responded to questions that allowed the calculation of their yearly income, as well as questions about the type of industry in which they were employed, the size of the firm that employed them, and whether they received formal training from their employer.

Responses from non-competitive students who were full-time employees revealed that a majority were employed in low paying service occupations and had not received any formal training from their employer that would lead to further career opportunities. Graduates employed full-time reported earning $14,700 a year and were employed primarily in the service industries: foods, retailing, transportation, and health occupations. Few (20%) respondents indicated that they had received formal training from their employer. This is not surprising because 70% of those employed worked in firms with fewer than 100 employees and 46% percent worked in firms with fewer than 20 employees-firms too small to provide formal training. Study results failed to support the argument that those making the transition from school to work after taking only academic courses in high school would be taught job skills on the job. It seems more likely that these students lacked the occupational skills that would have provided an advantage in competing for jobs that offered a career ladder and decent wages, and instead ended up employed in low-skilled, low-paying occupations.


This study was designed to expand the knowledge base regarding the effectiveness of the traditional college prep program of study in meeting the educational needs of those who participate. The research questions were prompted by the increasing percentage of all high school students who participate in this program of study and the resultant decline in secondary school vocational education. These questions were answered by the conduct of a longitudinal investigation of the high school and post secondary experiences of students who graduated from high schools where most participated in the college prep curriculum.

The data generated can be used to evaluate the educational ramifications of the enrollment by increasing percentages of all high school students into the college prep program. This development would seem, at first, to be a rare case of hoped-for reform, but only if the college prep program is educationally effective in preparing this growing cohort to be successful in higher education-the goal of the program of study. Specifically, do graduates experience success in higher education? However, since some do not go on to college, how successful are those who take the college prep course but do not go to college and end up instead in the workforce? This study's findings suggest that while some results are positive, celebrations may be premature and vocational education is still needed.

It is difficult not to conclude from our results that when the percentage of high school students who elect the college prep program of study increases, a large group (in this case 46%) are not very successful. There are, of course, some bright spots. These students do appear to enroll in advanced levels of mathematics at rates higher than national averages. They also reach slightly higher than average levels of science; although very few take physics. Forty-five percent took two years of the same foreign language, which is truly exemplary. Perhaps most encouraging, these students were no more or less alienated from high school than their more academically successful or gifted peers.

When looking beyond these bright spots, the picture darkens. Is a quiet fraud being perpetrated on these students and their parents-are the high schools and colleges misleading students and the parents of the less academically blessed into thinking they are preparing for college? Probably not, but it is hard not to conclude that parents may be misled and many students choose to delude themselves into thinking enrollment in college prep curriculum automatically means preparing for college. In the population studied, 46% could not attain a C average and/or combined SAT scores of 800. Many of them failed to complete the minimal college prep course sequence of three levels of college prep mathematics, two levels of laboratory science, and two years of the same foreign language. Yet colleges admit them anyway, and then require remedial course work for which they charge full tuition.

A more specific concern is the admittedly inconclusive evidence that while average students in the academic curriculum may take courses they would not normally take, they are not mastering the content. The incongruence between the relatively high levels of mathematics completed by non-competitive students in the college prep program and their dismal performance on the mathematics SAT is one indicator; the average grades in these courses in high school are another. Most telling, however, is the high percentage who had to take remedial courses in higher education and the relatively low marks given by these students to the adequacy of their high school preparation.

Arguably, a high school education has no intrinsic value but is valuable to the degree that it facilitates post secondary success. High schools imply this value when they brag about the college admission success of their graduates. Thus, graduates' success or failure in higher education would seem to be the bottom-line criterion for an evaluation of a common versus differentiated curriculum (thus the continued need for vocational education) and of the desirability of having increasing numbers of average students enroll in the college prep curriculum. This study suggests that when everyone takes the college prep curriculum, many-in this study, 46% -are not well prepared to go either to college or to work. Of the group that did go on to college (56%), about half were required to take remedial courses and failed to earn sophomore status after finishing their first year. This is rather discouraging, particularly because almost half were also borrowing money to attend. Meanwhile, the majority of those who went to work became employed in occupations that require little skill, pay low wages, and offer little career potential.

The results of this study suggest that the traditional college prep program of study is very effective for about one-third of those who enrolled and-if one forgets the numbers who had to take remedial English-semi-effective for another fifth of those who enrolled. However, it was ineffective for the rest (i. e., about half who participated). The high schools in this study were exemplary by any standard, and in these high schools the drift of students into the college prep program of study had reached its zenith; all but 7% were enrolled in the common college prep curriculum. These schools, to some extent, had unofficially adopted the common curriculum approach for average students as advocated by many high school reformers. Reformers would hope that in such a situation, average children would receive more attention, get a better education, and experience more success when they graduate. However, the sobering reality is that even in these select high schools, 46% of the students failed to graduate with either the credentials necessary to be successful in higher education or to obtain high-skilled/high-wage work. Thus, complacency by educators about the drift of academically average students into an unreformed college prep curriculum is ill advised.


What are the alternatives? Any realistic alternative to the traditional college prep program begins with the reality that in the short run higher education will continue to be the goal of most high school graduates. Ninety-five percent of a random sample of the class of 1992 said they planned to continue their education ( NCES, 1993b ). This unfounded enthusiasm for college is deeply rooted. Trying to convince academically average youths and their parents that college is not a good idea is probably quixotic.

Thus, alternatives for the academically non-competitive graduate, those who make up the academic middle of the nation's high schools, start with the assumption that most youths will, in the immediate future, aspire to higher education. One alternative, therefore, is to redesign the college prep curriculum to accommodate the growing academic spectrum of students who are enrolling. This redesigned curriculum should be an integrated program of focused academics taught in contextual modalities and a re-engineered vocational education designed to prepare students for success in two-year post secondary technical education. Developing such alternatives is one hoped-for outcome of the recently passed School to Work Opportunities Act, which requires an educational career plan that includes both two years of secondary and at least one year of post secondary education.

Another alternative that can be developed within the college prep program is the integrated tech prep curriculum currently under development by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education (NCRVE). This curriculum is best viewed as an emphasis within the college prep program of study that emphasizes preparation for two-year technical education through applied academics, career guidance, and related vocational technical education ( NCRVE, 1993 ). A full description of this curriculum concept is beyond the scope of this paper, but an important advantage if this program of study is that, when designed correctly, it also provides some degree of preparation for those who ultimately decide to go to work instead of college.

It is important to add also that preparation for two-year technical education-the outcome goal of integrated tech prep-makes good labor market sense for those in the academic middle. The Department of Labor reports that one of every three baccalaureate degree graduates will fail to find commensurate employment ( Eck, 1993 ). For those preparing for the professions (e. g., teaching, accounting, engineering), the outlook is even worse. The opposite is true in high skills/high wage occupations (e. g., the crafts, precision metal, specialized repair). In these occupations the demand for workers with prerequisite occupational skills greatly exceeds the supply, and labor market data suggest that individuals who are successful in obtaining jobs in these occupational groups will, on average, earn more than all college graduates except those who find work in the managerial and professional ranks ( Eck, 1993 ).

In conclusion, the drift into the college prep program by the majority of today's high school students seems to be creating significant transitional problems for growing numbers of high school graduates who now graduate academically unprepared for college and equally unprepared for work. Without reform, the college prep curriculum is no more effective for all students than it was at the turn of the century, when its failure led to the development of vocational education. However, this is not 1916, and while the college prep curriculum of old cannot serve even a majority of today's students, neither can an unremodeled vocational education. Although high school vocational education is still necessary, growing numbers of students need a vocational education that is integrated with the academic college preparatory curriculum and designed to prepare them to be successful in two-year technical education.


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Reference Citation: Gray, K., Wang, W. J., & Malizia, S. (1995). Is vocational education still necessary? Investigating the educational effectiveness of the college tech prep curriculum. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 32(2), 6-29.