A new report from Jobs for the Future (JFF) calls on states to pursue a “dual agenda” that would ensure not only that more students graduate from high school, but also that they are prepared to succeed in college. However, the report also notes that neither the federal government nor state governments have a blueprint on how to achieve that goal; as a result, most states have yet to act. In an effort to fill this void, Raising Graduation Rates in an Era of High Standards: Five Commitments for State Action provides state policymakers with a framework to help all students graduate from and succeed beyond high school and highlights states that are successfully raising standards and graduation rates.
“For the sake of our students and our nation, we urge state policymakers to review the recommendations in this report and commit to implementing them as soon as possible,” said Marlene B. Seltzer, JFF’s president and CEO. “In doing so, states can raise graduation rates without compromising high college- and work-readiness standards and take a critical step to improving the economic prospects of our citizenry and our nation as a whole.”
According to the report, meeting the challenge of raising standards and increasing high school graduation rates requires a new level of attention to the graduation and achievement gaps among different income and racial groups. Specifically, it singles out the “chasm-like gap” between the graduation rates of students from low-income families with limited formal education and their peers from higher-income, better-educated families.
For example, it notes that 91 percent of students from middle- and upper-income families graduate from high school (Quintiles 3–5), compared to only 65 percent of students in the lowest socioeconomic group (Quintile 1). Students from families whose income is in the lowest quintile also struggle harder to graduate from high school prepared for college and earn their college degree, as indicated in the graph below.
Even though students from low-income families struggle to graduate from high school and college, they do not lack ambition. As the report says, these students are “keen economists who recognize the demands of the workforce and aspire to a college degree.” A recent analysis of the National Educational Longitudinal Survey shows that close to 60 percent of dropouts earn a high school credential—typically a GED certificate—within twelve years of starting high school. And nearly half of these GED holders enroll in a two- or four-year postsecondary institution, but less than ten percent eventually earn their college degree.
“The achievement and graduation gaps indicated by this data augur serious consequences for both the economic standing and the social well-being of the nation,” the report reads. “Increasingly, all of our states rely on an educated workforce to fuel their major growth industries—such as health, biotechnology, and communications. Yet the percentage of young people in the United States earning a college degree remains disappointingly low.”
In the report, JFF calls on state policymakers to make five key commitments to increase the number of students who graduate from high school prepared for college:
- A high school diploma that signifies college and work readiness
- Pathways to graduation and college success for struggling and out-of-school students
- Turnaround of low-performing high schools
- Increased emphasis on graduation rates and college readiness in next-generation accountability
- Early and continuous support for struggling students
The report also provides a framework for high school improvement and dropout reduction that is organized around the five commitments and based on national and state research and the experiences of pioneering states, school districts, and best-in-class programs. Some state-level programs that are highlighted in the report include North Carolina’s “Learn and Earn” Schools initiative, which allows high school students to earn a high school diploma and up to two years of tuition-free college credit, and Louisiana’s Graduation Index, which creates incentives for high schools to keep students enrolled until they graduate and provide a rigorous curriculum through their senior year.