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PAYING DIVIDENDS: Wages and Job Success for “High Credentialed” High School Graduates Compare Favorably with Outcomes for Bachelor’s Degree Holders, According to New Report

High school graduates who enter the workforce directly instead of attending college can achieve similar and, in some cases, greater economic and social success than college goers, provided those graduates received a rigorous education during their high school years. In fact, such highly prepared high school graduates fare better than students who attend a two- or four-year college but do not earn a degree, according to a new report from the Center for Public Education (CPE), a policy research initiative of the National School Boards Association.

The report, The Path Least Taken III: Rigor and Focus in High School Pays Dividends in the Future, focuses on a group of high school graduates the authors describe as “high credentialed,” those who earned at least a C+ grade point average; completed Algebra II, advanced biology, and at least three career and technical education courses in a specific labor market area; and obtained a professional certification or license.

While, individually, each of these factors contributed to students’ later work and life success, “they were especially powerful in combination,” the report explains. “Compared to their peers, who lacked any of these characteristics, the high credentialed non-college [sic] goers achieved comparable, and sometimes, better employment and social outcomes.”

The report’s findings come from an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) of 2002 and the ELS Postsecondary Transcript dataset, which tracked a nationally representative sample of high school sophomores from 2002 through 2012.

At age twenty-six, high credentialed high school graduates who did not enroll in college earned nearly as much ($18.71 per hour) as individuals with a bachelor’s degree ($19.38 per hour), the report says. In fact, high credentialed high school graduates earned higher wages than other individuals who did not attend college, individuals who attended but did not complete college, and individuals who earned only an associate’s degree, the report says.

Additionally, the high credentialed high school graduates were as likely as bachelor’s degree holders to work full time and feel satisfied with their jobs and more likely to have employer-provided medical insurance, as the graph from the report shows below. They also were as likely as bachelor’s degree holders to register to vote and actually cast a ballot in an election, the report notes.

Economic Outcomes of High School Graduates at Age 26 by Education Attainment

High credentials had the greatest impact on noncollege goers, the CPE report notes. But students who attended college but did not earn a degree also fared better if they had earned high credentials while in high school. Among individuals who started college but did not finish, those who had earned high credentials while in high school earned higher wages and were more likely to work full time. By age twenty-six, typical noncompleters from two-year colleges earned $13.71 per hour, but those who had secured high credentials in high school earned $16.79 per hour. Similarly, typical noncompleters from four-year colleges earned $14.86 per hour, while those who were high credentialed in high school earned $16.04 per hour.

The Path Least Taken series provides more evidence that the same academic preparation that leads to success in college can also lead to success in the workplace,” says Naomi Dillon, CPE’s managing editor and coauthor of the report. “High schools that make sure all students take rigorous courses, particularly high-level math and science, and provide access to vocational sequences in a specific labor market area will go far toward setting students up to meet the challenges of the future, no matter where they ultimately end up.”

The Path Least Taken III: Rigor and Focus in High School Pays Dividends in the Future is available at


Economic Impacts

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