Last October, in perhaps the final triumphant moment of his administration, President Obama announced that America’s soaring high school graduation rate had risen, again, to an all-time high of 83 percent. Before he took office, the percentage of students earning diplomas languished for decades in the low to mid-70s; now the news was made still better by some narrowing of the persistent gaps between white and minority students.
Whether the progress could be attributed to Obama’s policies or broader trends (some academics have credited diminished teen pregnancy rates and falling levels of child lead exposure), it was undoubtedly cause for celebration.
Just a few months later, after an election that left much of Obama’s legacy in doubt, disheartening stories have also swirled around his signature educational achievements. In rapid succession, state officials in both Alabama and Tennessee admitted that their much-improved graduation rates were artificially lifted through a combination of administrative oversight and statistical legerdemain. Both cases recall other recent episodes in which major jurisdictions juiced reports and loosened standards in order to make their results more palatable. Dropouts were made to disappear from the records. Students in alternative programs were left out of the count. Others were waved through even after failing exit exams.
Yet there is an even greater cause for concern than inflated statistics: However legitimate the surge in graduation rates — and almost no one contends that they are wholly fictive — the relative value of a high school diploma, as measured by income, college preparedness, jobless rates, and employer confidence, has never been lower.
American schools may have taken praiseworthy strides in helping their students to the K-12 finish line, but there is little reason to believe that they have prepared them any more meaningfully for the challenges ahead.
College or bust
“I wouldn’t assume that more high school diplomas awarded equals a more career-ready workforce,” says Jason Tyszko, the executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Education and Workforce.
Tyszko works with businesses around the country to develop pipelines of human capital through education and job training programs. As The New York Times detailed in a January article, some of these companies struggle to fill even well-paying positions that require no college degree. A glaring absence of technical know-how — due in part to the decline of vocational education programs — hurts both the employer and the job seeker.
“You can up your completion rates for high school, but not increase the number of students who are proficient in reading and math and ready to go on to the workforce,” Tyszko says. “The opaqueness of those credentials — a high school diploma or even, frankly, a bachelor’s degree — is causing a lot of consternation in the business community.
“There just isn’t a lot of confidence in what somebody knows or is able to do, or if they’re able to perform a job.”
That lapse of confidence is demonstrated in labor market outcomes. In a 2016 survey conducted by CareerBuilder, 37 percent of employers said that they were hiring college graduates for jobs that used to be filled primarily by applicants who only finished high school. And the median weekly earnings for a high school graduate in 2014 were $668, a drop of nearly 12 percent since 1979.
High school earnings are now hovering close to the median for dropouts and teenagers — $638 — when Jimmy Carter was in office. Meanwhile, those who have attained bachelor’s degrees make $1,193, nearly 80 percent more.
The compound effect of these disparities is colossal. According to a 2011 report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the median college graduate now earns almost a million dollars more than the median high school graduate over the course of their respective careers.
In an interview, that paper’s co-author and the director of the center, Anthony Carnevale, told the now-familiar story of American deindustrialization and the rise of the knowledge economy. “In the 1970s, 70 percent of American workers either had high school or were high school dropouts, and most of them were in the middle class. Well, that’s not true anymore,” he said. “We still live in a world where maybe 20 percent of high school males who don’t go on to post-secondary [education] can get a decent job in what’s left of the blue-collar economy. But most everybody else has to go on to post-secondary.”
But the trends aren’t auspicious. Between 2008 and 2013, overall enrollment rates at both two- and four-year institutions fell by 2.7 percent. Among low-income students, the drop was a far larger 10.4 percent, despite growing awareness of the benefits of a college education. Today, even with the Great Recession’s most severe effects fading, the unemployment rate for high school graduates (5.9 percent) is more than twice the rate for college graduates (2.5 percent).
Even as college enrollment rates have fallen lately, the best academic indicators show little or no improvement in the proportion of twelfth-graders who are actually ready to begin college-level work.
Scores for both reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationally representative test that has tracked student results for decades, have been essentially flat for the past quarter-century. At no point during that time have more than two-fifths of test-takers been prepared for college by the standards of that exam.
That means that, year after year, waves of incoming freshman break upon the rocks of first-year writing and math seminars.
“High school graduation standards aren’t necessarily aligned with college entry standards,” says Elisabeth Barnett. A senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, she studies how to improve the transition from high school to college. “Even if students are learning more and doing better and graduating the way the state would want them to do based on state standards, that wouldn’t necessarily translate to meeting the college requirement,” she says.
The millions of students who fall into this doughnut hole every year — qualified to graduate high school, but not to begin college — end up starting their post-secondary careers in remedial education: effectively making up high school courses that cost a lot without imparting any credits toward graduation.
Higher ed remediation programs are more or less the kiss of death. The numbers can vary depending on the source, but research shows that the on-time graduation rates for college students who begin in remedial education is somewhere around 10 percent. And the proportion of community college students who begin in remedial education seems to be growing. The CCRC website observes that almost 35 percent of students who entered two-year public institutions in 2011–12 took remedial courses—up from around 30 percent in 2003–04 and 25 percent in 1995–96.
Barnett cautions that the figures may be influenced by new community college entrance exams rather than the relative college readiness of American high school graduates. Still, the prospect is daunting: Millions of students pay extra tuition (the annual cost of remedial coursework totals around $1.5 billion nationally) to learn what they should already know and, in so doing, actually become less likely to move forward.
“The basic model, which is high-school-to-Harvard, is working better and better for white kids from affluent families, but not so much for everybody else,” says Carnevale, the head of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “There are a lot of people who aren’t going on to college. There’s still people dropping out of high school, a lot of people going to college who don’t finish.”
Down the road
After more than a decade of steadily growing audiences at commencement speeches and a profusion of group photos, a diploma remains a promissory note vouching for its owner’s abilities. Employers and admissions officers put less faith in those assurances than they once did, according to higher education and workforce analysts.
The supply of potential employees with a high school diploma has steadily increased, but the demand for that credential has declined in jobs that pay middle-class wages.
Without building more reliable paths to the professional and academic skills necessary for economic stability, analysts say, the nation will struggle to keep pace with the rest of the world when it comes to generating ideas — and fielding a workforce to realize them.