An Experimental Evaluation of the Efficacy of Virtual Enterprises

High school student presenting to class

Many high schools struggle to ensure that all graduates are prepared for college and the workforce, and employers consistently report difficulty in finding workers with strong employability skills. Incorporating work-based learning (WBL) into the curriculum as part of a career and technical education (CTE) program may improve students’ readiness for college and careers.

School-based enterprises, in which students operate a business that produces and sells goods or services, are one form of WBL. However, there is little causal evidence showing the impacts of WBL on student academic or employment outcomes, and none showing the impacts of school-based enterprises.

The Virtual Enterprises Evaluation

This study will provide the first causal evidence on the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of Virtual Enterprises (VE), a year-long course in which students run a virtual firm. Individual students assume specific roles, such as CEO, marketing manager, or human resources director. Students then work together to develop and implement a strategy for the firm and participate in a virtual economy with other VE firms.

The curriculum is provided by Virtual Enterprises International, a nonprofit organization that also provides training for the VE teachers (known as facilitators), provides virtual start-up capital to the firms, and runs the online marketplace in which firms sell their goods or services. VE has been adopted by over 430 schools across 18 states, and prior implementation studies indicate that it has the potential to increase student motivation and employability skills.

The research team will conduct a randomized controlled trial that includes districts across three states and approximately 40 high schools that have an oversubscribed VE program. Eligible students from two cohorts (school years 2022–23 and 2023–24) will be randomized into the VE program. The researchers will use a combination of administrative data, assessments, and surveys during and after the intervention to compare academic and employment outcomes for eligible students who were assigned to the VE program and those who were not. Additional data will be collected to measure students’ employability skills and to support the implementation study.

This project is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. RAND is the prime for this project and will conduct the randomized controlled trial. AIR is the sub-contractor and is leading the implementation study within the evaluation. RAND and AIR will co-lead dissemination activities. This project is part of the CTE Research Network.