By Nick Mathern
The US Department of Education announced last week that, once again, high school graduation rates are at a historic high. Across the US, 82% of young people who entered the 9th grade in fall of 2010 earned a diploma by the spring of 2014 (the rate was stalled for two years at 75% in 2008 and 2009). This represents tremendous progress toward the goal set by America’s Promise Alliance of a 90% graduation rate by 2020. This is progress, not just because the overall number is going up, but because it is going up for low-income students and students of color as well. Graduation rates across demographics are not even yet, but we’re getting closer.
Still, those diplomas are not leading us to increased equity. The high school diploma is an ever-important step in the education process, but, it is just that, a step. It’s not news to anyone that we’re long past the point where a high school diploma is sufficient for preparing students for family wage jobs. That isn’t to say that all of our young people need four-year degrees—they don’t. But our 21st century job market is dependent on a balanced workforce that includes substantially more college degrees and technical certificates than American students currently earn.
The problem, then, is that while we’ve increased our capacity to get a larger and more equitable percentage of the population to clear the bar of high school graduation, it still amounts to a terminal degree for far too many students. The PELL Institute recently released a report demonstrating that over the past 45 years there has been a dramatic increase in college completion rates for students in the highest income quartile (and a doubling of attainment for students in the 3rd quartile as well). However, for students in the lowest and in the second income quartiles, rates have only increased very modestly—not nearly enough to keep pace with the education demands of today’s workforce. (If you’re disinclined to read the entire 53 page report, Vox.com has the salient graphics here.) NPR’s Morning Edition noted that first generation students are four times more likely than other students to drop out of college in their first year http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2015/02/16/385470288/fitting-in-on-campus-challenges-for-first-generation-students.
In order to address this problem, we need to extend the pressure for accountability and equity that has yielded sustained progress in our nation’s high school graduation rates to our entire education system. We must ensure that the 81% of young people who earn an on-time high school diploma are both prepared and properly supported to achieve a post-secondary credential that allows them to access the American dream. Our current system doesn’t do that. Rather, it brings students to the end of the K-12 line, drops them off—very unevenly prepared—and cynically wishes them luck in achieving the daunting next phase of their journey. We can no longer afford the inequitable outcomes that result. Post-secondary education is no longer exclusively about achieving affluence and privilege. It is critical to meeting our workforce needs, and it cannot be exclusively attainable by those who come from affluence and privilege.
To be clear, this is not a problem that is being neglected. Across the country, there are many committed educators and policy makers who are working tirelessly to address college preparation, access, and completion. We’ve blazed many promising paths forward, but we have a long way to go in order to bring our solutions to scale. Gateway to College is one effort among many within the early college and dual enrollment movements to build college skills and success among first generation and low-income high school students. Programs like this, which focus both on college preparation and enrollment while students are still in high school, are critical and must be complemented by college-based programs that provide intensive support services to students who might otherwise struggle in college. The most successful of these programs help students to develop a sense of belonging within post-secondary institutions and build relationships which support them when they encounter challenges.
We should be encouraged by the positive news that more students are earning high school diplomas, but remain sober about how few students are ready or supported to earn the credential they need to lift them out of poverty. While a high school diploma is not enough, we can use the momentum of our improvement in high school graduation rates to double down on the next critical piece—genuine college readiness and a coordinated system for transition and support to ensure post-secondary success.
Nick Mathern is Associate Vice President of Policy & Partnership Development. Since 2005, he has brokered agreements between colleges, school districts, and state education agencies in order to connect communities with training, professional development, and evaluation services, as well as replication and implementation of the Gateway to College program model. Read more.