Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Executive Summary

By The Editors — May 31, 2011 6 min read
Community college student Chessy Dintruff, center, and her mother, Catalina Dintruff, meetwith an academic adviser during orientation at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. Thestudent saved money by earning an associate degree before enrolling at the university.

With the nation’s economic recovery seemingly stuck in low gear, the need to better understand the link between learning and a career seems more critical than ever for high school students preparing to graduate and enter the next phase of their lives.

Most know by now that the way to earn middle-class pay is to acquire at least some postsecondary education. President Barack Obama has even made it a goal that every U.S. student have at least one year of postsecondary study. What may be less clear is exactly how much education is enough and what kind of training is needed for the occupations that graduates might choose to pursue.

However, in the drive to ensure that American students leave K-12 schools “college and career ready,” the major emphasis has been on the “college” part—and especially on four-year colleges.

While that’s a widely lauded goal, it hasn’t panned out for everyone. Seventy percent of students now enroll in a two- or four-year college within two years of graduating from high school, but many drop out a year or two later, often winding up thousands of dollars in debt and with no clear path to a well-paying occupation. By age 27, only about 40 percent of U.S. young people manage to earn either a baccalaureate or an associate degree, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

What options remain for everyone else? That’s a question increasingly on the minds of educators, policymakers, and thinkers--from the classroom level to the highest reaches of the federal government.

The 2011 edition of Diplomas Count, titled Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree, attempts to address that question. It explores career-related study pathways for students that lie in the space between a high school diploma and a four-year degree—options such as community college, “early college,” or high school career training that leads to occupational certification. It looks as well at what high schools can do to expose students to a broader range of postsecondary pathways, many of which can also serve as a steppingstone to a bachelor’s degree.

Graduation Rates Rebound

The call for a more expansive focus on student’s postsecondary options comes as statistics show that pursuing some form of higher education is becoming a realistic option for greater numbers of high school students. Diplomas Count 2011 contains the latest original analysis of high school completion conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. It finds that the national graduation rate stands at 71.7 percent for the class of 2008—the highest level since the 1980s.

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

This year’s analysis shows that, from 2007 to 2008, the overall graduation rate for public high school students jumped nearly 3 percentage points. Each major racial and ethnic group posted gains of at least 2 percentage points, with African-American students showing the steepest improvement. African-Americans’ graduation-rate rise over the past decade, in fact, has contributed to a 2-percentage-point narrowing of the gap between black students and their white counterparts over that period. The report finds, however, that the graduation gaps between Latinos and whites and between Native Americans and whites have widened since 1999.

Looking at the nation’s 50 largest school districts, the analysis shows that, in 39 of them, graduation rates are below the national average. Urban districts occupy the lowest rungs on the 50-district ranking, often graduating no more than half their students. Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., in suburban Washington, rank first and second, respectively, with graduation rates topping 85 percent—more than 50 percentage points higher than lowest-ranked Detroit.

A Look Inside Diplomas Count

Education Week reporters discuss their findings in compiling stories for the 2011 edition of Diplomas Count.

Many of those large districts, despite their mostly below-average graduation rates, fared better when compared with districts of similar size and demographics.

In keeping with this year’s Diplomas Count theme, the EPE Research Center conducted an original analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to examine more closely the links between education, career, and earnings. The data show that annual earnings increase significantly as workers acquire progressively higher levels of education, from high school dropout, to high school graduate, to any amount of subbaccalaureate education, to a four-year college degree.

But nearly 30 percent of adults with just some postsecondary schooling have incomes at or above the median level of four-year-college graduates. Analyzing the educational profiles of job-holders for 469 distinct occupations, the research center identified 50 in which a majority of the incumbents had a subbaccalaureate level of schooling. Across those occupations, median annual incomes range from $18,000 for massage therapists to $73,000 for managers in the firefighting and fire-prevention field.

As the report notes, researchers are increasingly delving into such national data to provide a better understanding of the costs and benefits involved in various paths through the postsecondary world.

Pathways in Action

Finally, the report highlights ways in which educators have begun to build meaningful career pathways that don’t necessarily culminate in a four-year degree. Through California’s Linked Learning network, for instance, high school educators in nine districts are blending college-preparatory studies with updated career and technical education to create relevant and meaningful pathways that can carry a student into either a career or college. Similarly, an early-college high school in Dearborn, Mich., that was created to respond to a predicted labor shortage in the local health-care industry enables students to graduate in five years with a high school diploma, an associate degree, and a certificate in a health-related occupation.

Both approaches show that students need not sacrifice academic rigor in order to pursue a course of study that is tightly coupled to a career.

The report also explores how community colleges are responding to the national spotlight being turned their way in the drive to expand college-going rates. It profiles efforts by community colleges to innovate by reaching into high schools with new career-related programs, while at the same time addressing long-standing problems in their own institutions, such as higher attrition rates than those at four-year colleges.

Diplomas Count also sounds a cautionary note on for-profit colleges. While they are enjoying booming enrollments, such schools have come under federal scrutiny for questionable marketing and recruiting practices.

While credible subbaccalaureate options exist, high school students are often not aware of them—nor of the educational requirements for occupations they might want to pursue. One of the two guest commentaries accompanying this report points out college guidance is especially scarce for students from traditionally underserved minority groups.

As the 2011 School Counselor of the Year, Randy A. McPherson, of Memphis, Tenn., told an Education Week reporter: “You ask students, what are their plans? ‘Well, going to college’ Why are you going to college?’ ‘I don’t know why.’ ”

Diplomas Count was produced with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

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