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What to do after high school?

The annual “Diplomas Count” report has joined the growing discussion about the value of a college degree.

The 2011 version of the yearly graduation study from Education Week is titled “Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate: Meaningful Alternatives to a Four-Year Degree” and is the latest in a spate of studies examining the value of college degrees.

“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,” according to the report summary.

“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.”

While the Diplomas Count study has a different emphasis every year, it always updates high school graduation rates and related indicators for the nation, states and school districts.

Here’s a summary of what the latest study found:

“The national graduation rate stands at 71.7 percent for the class of 2008 – the highest level since the 1980s. 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.”

The report noted the rate is “the highest level of graduation for the nation’s public high schools since the 1980s, [and] this result also marks a significant turnaround following two consecutive years of declines and stagnation.”

Colorado stats

The analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found Colorado’s overall 2008 graduation rate was slightly above the national average at 73.3 percent.

Colorado’s gender gap basically mirrored the nation, with 77.1 percent of girls and 69.7 percent of boys graduating.

The state and the nation both show significant ethnic graduation gaps, but Colorado’s American Indian (49.3 percent) and Hispanic (52 percent) graduation rates were lower than national averages. The state’s black graduation rate (61.7 percent) was higher than the national rate.

Colorado’s graduation rate grew 5.7 percentage points from 1998 to 2008, compared to 6.1 points nationally. (The study used 2008 because that was the most recent year for which full comparable data was available. See this explanation of how rates were calculated.)

Unlike many states, Colorado does not have statewide common requirements for high school graduation, either prescribed courses or examinations. Local control of instruction is guaranteed by the state constitution.

The study also provided data about the nation’s 50th largest school districts, which include Jefferson County and the Denver Public Schools. Jeffco was 5th in the nation with a 77.8 percent rate, while DPS was 48th with a 43.5 percent rate.

Districts also were evaluated on what their graduation rates were expected to be, based on size and socioeconomic factors. Jeffco’s graduation rate was higher than its predicted rate, but Denver fell short. (See list of districts.)

Debate growing around value of college

A number of factors have focused research and commentator attention on college attendance and completion in recent months.

First, there has been growing attention to – or at least rhetoric about – the value of postsecondary education to a student’s life prospects. Colorado’s omnibus education improvement law, the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, explicitly sets a standard of “postsecondary and workforce readiness” for all high school graduates to meet.

Colorado politicians and education leaders routinely praise the value of college, and college completion is one of the three education policy priorities announced by the Hickenlooper administration earlier this spring.

But there has been concern that the postsecondary push places too much emphasis on college and not enough on other types of training after high school, questions echoed in the Diplomas County report.

Second, the economic downturn and the resulting tough job prospects for college grads have sparked fresh debate about the value – and the cost – of college.

The report notes that 70 percent of high school grads enroll in college within two years, but only about 40 percent of young Americans manage to earn a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree by age 27.

The report examines career-related pathways for students such as community college, “early college,” or high school training that leads to certification.

“While credible sub-baccalaureate options exist, high school students are often not aware of them—nor of the educational requirements for occupations they might want to pursue,” the report summary concludes.

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