Vocational vs. Academic High School

China is the world’s largest developing country. As with other developing countries, a key policy question for China is how to balance investments in vocational versus academic education to support growth and reduce inequalities.


"Senior secondary education, including regular and vocational education, should be vigorously developed." -Chinese Ministry of Education

China has recently begun investing in the vocational education training (VET) of its populace. Under this new policy, the government has invested over 21 billion dollars annually from 2001 to 2011. Across this same period, vocational high school enrollments have expanded from 11.7 million to 22.1 million students. Many provinces now provide partial subsidies for poor rural students who attend vocational schools.

Students in China are now asked to choose a schooling "track" at the end of junior high school--academic high school or vocational (VET) high school. While academic programs are very costly and have high academic admission requirements, VET programs may offer a more accessible path for disadvantaged rural students. If VET is contributing skills and knowledge (value-added) to students that exceeds the resources invested into subsidies, such a policy move would support future economic growth and reduce income disparities.

Unfortunately, no well-identified empirical study has measured the value-added of VET. On one level, policymakers perceive a need for skilled laborers such as mechanics and electricians. They thus design VET programs to train students in developing specific skills, such as car repair, welding or plumbing. In theory, these programs are also supposed to give students a strong foundations in general academic skills, such as math, English and Chinese.

However, we have not found any studies to date that confirm these claims. Some scholars suspect that students in VET schools are not actually receiving quality basic education or quality job-specific training. Instead, some VET schools seem to be no more than recruiting grounds for factories.


In this study, we aim to answer a series of questions:

  • What is the value-added (in terms of academic test scores) of VET relative to academic high school in terms of dropout rates, general skills, and job-specific skills?

  • What are the returns to attending VET for the poor? For female students?


In October 2011 we conducted a baseline survey of 10,000 students in academic and vocational high schools in Shaanxi and Zhejiang Provinces. Students and their teachers were asked to fill out survey forms on their basic background characteristics and all students also took standardized tests in math (general skills) and computers (job-specific skills). 

In May 2012 we returned to all of our sample schools and conducted a follow-up survey and administered another round of standardized tests. We also confirmed the students who had stayed in school and those who had dropped out of the course of that academic year. 

By comparing the change in test scores across the two surveys, we can measure the value-added of one year of vocational and academic high school. 


FINDING 1: Relative to academic high school students, vocational students are losing in both specific and general skills

FINDING 2: Relative to academic high school students, vocational students are more likely to drop out of school

FINDING 3: Even when we compare VET students with the worst academic high school students in their schools, attending a vocational high school reduces general skills and does not lead to gains in specific skills (relative to attending academic high school).


Our results suggest that expansion of vocational schooling as a substitute for academic schooling may be detrimental to the economic growth of developing countries like China. Since students who are low income and low ability placed in vocational high school drop out more than the higher income and ability students, vocational schools are not adequately preparing students who are at the greatest risk of dropout. 

At present, the quality of vocational education in China is highly variable. Too often, students are learning very little, if anything, during their tenure at vocational schools. In response, we are testing a credentialing system designed to hold vocational schools to higher standards and reward high quality schools. Preliminary results suggest that this credentialing system is leading to significant improvements in student learning. To learn more about this project, see Assessing and Credentialing Vocational High Schools.


3ie Foundation