What to Make of P-TECH Schools


Feb 21, 2014

two male students looking at a laptop

This commentary originally appeared on The RAND Blog on February 21, 2014.

“The School That Will Get You a Job,” this week's Time Magazine cover story, celebrates Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, a Chicago school that follows the innovative approach of the New York-based Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH. For six years, students at Sarah E. Goode focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Upon graduating, students receive a no-cost associate's degree in addition to their high school diploma. The school's corporate sponsor, IBM, helps develop the curriculum.

There is no doubting the viability of STEM skills in the 21st century job market and the long-term benefits of going to college. But the P-TECH program could be promising for two reasons that have nothing to do with technology.

First, as noted by Time, it may help disadvantaged students transition successfully to college. (Almost all of the students at Sarah E. Goode are African-American.) African-American enrollment rates are more volatile than for the nation as a whole. In 2011, the enrollment rate for African-American students was 67.5 percent, nearly the same as the national rate (68.3). By 2012, as the economy recovered and jobs available to high school graduates became more plentiful, the national enrollment rate fell two percentage points to 66.2 percent. But African-American enrollment rates tumbled even further (PDF), all the way to 58.2 percent. Hence, retention of African Americans within the educational system as they graduate from high school is an important policy priority.

Second, P-TECH may increase college retention rates, helping more students graduate. The African-American college completion rate is below the national average. For example, in 2011, only 10.1 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds with a college degree were African-American (PDF), versus their 14.3 percent share of the population.

Beyond these broad considerations, it's worth considering what might make P-TECH an attractive option to individual students. After all, they're already flocking to Sarah E. Goode, which accepted just one in three applicants last year.

One reason may be the no-cost associate's degree. However, the annual cost of an associate's degree—less than $2,500 for a typical student from a low-income family—is probably less of a deterrent to attend community college than the income lost by attending. So the cost of an associate's degree is probably not a key incentive to join the P-TECH program.

A more likely explanation is what economists call a signaling effect. This refers to the assumptions parties make about others based on the “signals” they receive. To use a classic (and relevant) example, a young job applicant with a degree from a highly-ranked college conveys a positive signal to prospective employers about his or her qualifications and potential.

Similarly, students could be drawn to schools like Sarah E. Goode by the school's affiliation with IBM alone. That is, if IBM is involved, it must be a good school.

However, if the signaling effect is the primary driver of P-TECH's success, it may merely attract students who would attend college regardless, but prefer P-TECH over the traditional route. Thus, P-TECH's effect on overall college enrollment rates could be limited.

Regardless of the promise P-TECH shows, though, stakeholders across the board would do well to not misunderstand what Time calls P-TECH's “final, crucial twist, [a] job guarantee for graduates.” (IBM promises P-TECH graduates priority consideration for employment, rather than an outright guarantee.)

While employers like IBM desperately need candidates with STEM skills—a company representative reports 1,800 job vacancies due to an unqualified candidate pool—only time will tell how many graduates of Sarah E. Goode and other P-TECH schools actually end up working for their corporate partners.

Nonetheless, it's clear that innovative approaches like P-TECH could make a difference for students preparing for the 21st-century workplace.

Rafiq Dossani is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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