Diplomas Count 2011: Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree
Published Online: May 31, 2011
Published in Print: June 9, 2011, as Nation Turns a Corner

Analysis Finds Graduation Rates Moving Up

Strong signs of improvement on graduation

For more than two years, average Americans have followed reports on unemployment, the housing market, commodity prices, consumer confidence, and the daily fluctuations of the markets for signals that the economy has finally, and firmly, entered a period of renewed growth and stability. So too have education-watchers been on the lookout, for the better part of a decade, for signs of an educational recovery.

At the heart of the reform agenda lie commitments to combat the U.S. dropout crisis and propel the nation’s schools and its economy at full speed into the 21st century, by ensuring that all students have a chance to earn a meaningful diploma that prepares them for further education and training and a successful adult life. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have espoused such goals, as have major philanthropies, leading nonprofit organizations, prominent business leaders, and state and district policymakers from coast to coast. Even with this high-profile attention and a host of new policy efforts, gaining traction on graduation has been frustratingly difficult.

That is, perhaps, until now.

A new analysis of high school completion from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center finds that the national graduation rate stands at 71.7 percent for the class of 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. The highest level of graduation for the nation’s public high schools since the 1980s, this result also marks a significant turnaround following two consecutive years of declines and stagnation.

The research center calculates graduation rates for the nation, states, and every public school district in the country using the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) method and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

Despite such clear indications of progress, the fact is that too many students continue to fall through the cracks of America’s high schools. We project that, nearly 1.2 million students from this year’s high school class will fail to graduate with a diploma. That amounts to 6,400 students lost each day of the year, or one student every 27 seconds.

A Class Portrait

A detailed snapshot of results reveals two patterns that speak as much to public education’s past as its future. The graduation-rate recovery evident in the broadest national statistics is shared widely, across demographic groups. Even those substantial strides, however, have done little to close the historical disparities that define graduation gaps along the lines of race, gender, and geography.

The overall graduation rate for public high school students jumped nearly 3 percentage points from 2007 to 2008, more than offsetting the nationwide declines of the previous two years. Each major racial and ethnic group also posted gains of at least 2 percentage points, with African-American students improving most rapidly.

Data Download
Graduation in the United States PDF
Graduation Policies for the Class of 2011 PDF

The nation’s graduation rate rose by 6.1 percentage points over all of the past decade. During the same period, the black-white graduation gap narrowed by 2 points, owing to the more rapid progress made by African-Americans. Because improvement for whites outpaced that of other groups, though, the gaps between Native Americans and whites and between Latinos and whites have widened somewhat since 1999.

Asian-Americans and whites remain the nation’s highest-performing groups, posting graduation rates of 83 percent and 78 percent, respectively, for the class of 2008.

Gaps a Concern

Although the rates for key historically underserved groups have improved over time, they remain a cause for concern. Among Latinos in the class of 2008, 58 percent finished high school with a diploma, while 57 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Native Americans graduated. On average, 68 percent of male students earn a diploma compared with 75 percent of female students, a 7-percentage-point gender gap that has remained virtually unchanged for years. High school completion rates for minority males consistently fall near or below the 50 percent mark.

Suburban districts graduate considerably more students on average than do those serving urban communities, 76 percent vs. 64 percent. Regardless of location, graduation rates in districts characterized by heightened levels of poverty or racial or socioeconomic segregation fall well below the national average, typically ranging from 58 percent to 63 percent.

Graduation Rates on the Rebound

The nation’s graduation rate has reached its highest point in two decades. The proportion of public high school students earning diplomas for the class of 2008 approached 72 percent, exceeding an earlier peak in 1991. Every racial and ethnic group posted solid gains for the class of 2008, marking the second straight year of across-the-board improvements.

In addition, the 44-percentage-point chasm separating the highest- and lowest-performing states remains alarming. The national leaders—New Jersey, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin—each graduate more than 80 percent of their high school students. At the other extreme of the rankings, fewer than six in 10 students finish high school in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina. Overall, graduation rates in about half the states fall within 5 points of the national average of 72 percent.

Graduation rates have also risen in a large majority of states during the past decade. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have posted gains ranging from a fraction of a percent to 20 percentage points over that time span. Among the states that have lost ground, all but one of the declines were on the order of 5 percentage points or less.

Perspectives On Performance

For the past several years, Diplomas Count has assessed district performance using measures that move beyond such conventional metrics as making comparisons against national or state averages. In the 2009 and 2010 editions of the report, for example, the EPE Research Center identified several dozen “overachieving” school system—large, urban districts with graduation rates much higher than would be expected, based on a detailed profile comprising 10 distinct characteristics, including size, location, poverty level, and structural features.

This year, the center performs a similar statistical analysis for the nation’s 50 largest school districts, a group that includes big inner-city school districts as well as large countywide school systems.

Subbaccalaureate Jobs

Using data from the 2009 American Community Survey, the EPE Research Center identified a set of 50 occupations in which the majority of workers have some postsecondary education but less than a four-year degree. Median annual incomes in these occupations range from about $18,000 for massage therapists to $73,000 for supervisors and managers of firefighters.

Urban districts, perhaps predictably, occupy the lowest spots on the rankings, often graduating no more than half their students and as few as one-third. Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., respectively, rank first and second among the nation’s largest districts, with graduation rates topping 85 percent, more than 50 percentage points higher than Detroit, the lowest-ranked district.

Graduation rates are below the national average in 39 of the 50 largest districts. But even though they fall short of that benchmark, many of those school systems fare more favorably when compared against similarly situated districts. For example, Long Beach, Calif., posts a graduation rate of 71.4 percent for the class of 2008. Just shy of the U.S. average, that rate is actually 6 percentage points higher than expected for a district with a comparable size and sociodemographic profile. Top-ranked Montgomery County beats expectations (by 10 points), while graduation rates in Detroit are 15 points lower than expected.

Diplomas, Degrees, And Dollars

Policymakers and reform leaders increasingly make the case for aggressive measures to improve schools, particularly at the secondary level, in both economic and educational terms. A more educated population, the argument goes, leads to a workforce that is better prepared for the rapidly escalating and shifting skill demands of a 21st-century global economy.

The observation that more schooling is economically beneficial is so widely accepted that it prompts little further reflection. Long-term labor-market trends, for example, show a dual pattern of increasing educational attainment among workers, coupled with steadily rising financial returns to a postsecondary education over time. And indeed, each successive level of education completed or credential acquired does ratchet up earnings.

Diplomas, Degrees, and Dollars

Median earnings for prime working-age adults (25 to 54) steadily increase as levels of educational attainment rise. A typical worker with at least a four-year college degree earns about $50,000 per year, compared with a median income of $30,000 among those with a two-year degree or subbaccalaureate education and about $18,500 for those with no more than a high school diploma. Despite those sizable average differences, there is considerable overlap across income distributions, particularly for those with a four-year degree and a lesser amount of postsecondary education.

So, in many ways, the attention now being placed on college readiness makes perfect sense as a way both to provide students with a high-quality education and to place the economy on a firmer footing for the future. But, as explored throughout Diplomas Count 2011, some critics have raised concerns that the “college” in the phrase “college readiness” has too often been interpreted as a call specifically to promote four-year degrees. The danger of such a narrow working definition of a college education, it is argued, lies in potentially devaluing forms of postsecondary education and training short of a baccalaureate degree that may provide substantial benefits to individuals and the larger economy.

To further explore these dynamics, the EPE Research Center conducted an original analysis of data from the American Community Survey, which collects information on 3 million individuals every year. The ACS offers a valuable opportunity to draw connections between educational histories, labor-market experiences, and career backgrounds.

Thirty-nine percent of the prime working-age population (ages 25 to 54) has completed no more than a high school education, compared with roughly equal proportions of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and with a subbaccalaureate postsecondary education (at 31 and 30 percent, respectively). The 39 million Americans who constitute the latter category include recipients of associate degrees and those with some postsecondary experience but no degree.

Income data from 2009 show that annual earnings increase significantly as workers acquire progressively higher levels of education. Median earnings for adults who have not completed high school stand at only $12,000. Acquiring a high school diploma generates an additional $10,000 of earnings on average, with any amount of subbaccalaureate postsecondary education (including an associate degree) raising income an additional $8,000 a year, to almost $30,000. The typical four-year degree-holder earns about $50,000 a year.

1.2 Million Students Fail to Graduate

The EPE Research Center projected the number of graduates and nongraduates for the class of 2011 by multiplying the 2007-08 graduation rate by the number of 9th graders enrolled that year. The areas of the circles are proportional to the number of students failing to graduate.

Nationally, 1.2 million members of this year’s graduating class will not earn diplomas. This represents 143,500 fewer dropouts than the previous year. A member of the class of 2011 will leave school every 27 seconds.

Focusing just on average returns to schooling, however, overlooks the substantial overlap between the earnings distributions for workers with different levels of educational attainment. For instance, more than a quarter of adults with an associate degree have incomes at or above the median level of four-year college graduates. Put another way, substantial numbers of less-than-B.A. workers enjoy economic benefits comparable to those with a four-year college degree.

One factor contributing to these overlapping economic returns is the inexact relationship between credentials and occupations. Yes, practicing lawyers must hold J.D.s, and physicians require M.D.s. But more often than not, educational requirements for particular jobs are not so well-defined or clear-cut. In public education, for example, K-12 teacher licensure now typically requires at least a bachelor’s degree (although this does not apply to the private sector). But some jobs may place a greater emphasis on demonstrated skills and experience than on formal education and credentials.

Using ACS data, the EPE Research Center characterized 469 distinct occupations based on the educational level of typical job-holders. Relatively few occupations displayed the tight educational requirements of the traditional professions. In fact, nearly 30 percent of all occupations did not yield a dominant educational profile. But the analysis did identify 50 occupations in which the majority of workers had a subbaccalaureate level of schooling.

Dropout Epicenters

Twenty-five individual school systems account for one in every five nongraduates nationwide for the class of 2011.

Median income levels within that segment of the labor market vary dramatically. Massage therapists, for example, typically earn only $18,000 a year, somewhat below the income of the average high school graduate. At the other end of that range are annual earnings of $73,000 for managers in the firefighting and fire-prevention field. Although most of those workers do not hold bachelor’s degrees, they out-earn the typical graduate of a four-year college by a margin of $23,000 per year.

To borrow a phrase from the world of product promotions and disclaimers: Those results may not be typical. On average, more education tends to produce more-desirable economic outcomes.

That said, the labor-force experiences of bachelor’s-degree holders and those with less postsecondary education are both quite diverse and, more to the point, can be quite similar to one another. That suggests it’s wise to guard against the tendency to define a meaningful “college” experience in overly narrow or prescriptive terms.

Progress on Policy

Every year, Diplomas Count assesses the status of state policies that may affect graduation. An original survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia conducted by the EPE Research Center tracks activity on 18 policy indicators in three broad areas: college- and work-readiness definitions, high school completion credentials, and high school exit exams.

Most of Nation's Largest School Systems Meeting Expectations

Graduation rates in the nation’s 50 largest districts range from 33 percent to nearly 86 percent for the class of 2008. Two diverse suburban districts near the nation’s capital—Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va.—top the rankings.

For the first time, a majority of states (33) report having established definitions of college readiness that capture the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level college courses. That number represents a large increase over the 23 states defining college readiness last year. Such a quantum leap likely reflects a convergence of such factors as increasing emphasis on readiness in national policy forums, the accelerating influence of the common-standards movement, and the culmination of pre-existing state-led efforts to improve students’ college readiness.

Thirty-three states also have comparable frameworks for work readiness in place. As with definitions of college readiness, states typically articulate those expectations in terms of coursetaking recommendations, academic standards, minimum scores on standardized tests, or sets of applicable skills.

Beyond the domain of college and work readiness, Diplomas Count finds relatively little state-policy movement during the past year in areas related to high school graduation. Course requirements for earning a standard diploma held steady at 21 credits, with half the states also linking that credential to a high school exit exam. Twenty-six states issue advanced diplomas or recognitions for exceeding the basic expectations for graduation, while 29 offer alternative certificates for those who do not complete the standard requirements.

Vol. 30, Issue 34, Pages 23-25

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