More graduates, please

Just when we thought things were looking up. As we’ve reported before, high school graduation rates have been steadily rising for over a decade. A new report now shows that higher rates notwithstanding, we are about to enter a period of declining numbers of high school grads. The implications for growing the nation’s supply of college grads and skilled workers look pretty daunting.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) recently published an eighth edition of its projections of high school graduates (“Knocking at the College Door”).  The data is primarily intended for higher education institutions and policymakers to inform postsecondary policies related to funding, student aid and so forth.  But by shedding light on high school graduation trends both nationally and by state, the projections are also useful for P-12 leaders.

WICHE found that a nearly unprecedented era of growth in high school diplomas peaked with the class of 2010-11, when the nation produced approximately 3.4 million grads. But a combination of lower birth rates and changing demographics point to a drop in numbers to 3.2 to 3.3 million annually. Given current college-going and completion rates, it makes the already difficult job of feeding the demand for workers with post-secondary credentials even more so.  At the WICHE press event releasing the report, the mostly higher ed panel further suggested that colleges and universities, concerned about the impact on their enrollments, will recruit more heavily outside the country.

Unless.  Even with lower birth rates, we have enough young people to fill our universities and high-skilled jobs. But we need to double down on our efforts to raise high school graduation rates, particularly for Latino and African American teenagers, which, though improving, still lag behind their Asian and white peers. We also need to make sure that the diploma all of our students earn prepares them for success in two- and four-year colleges.

We can do this. The P-12 focus on raising high school grad rates is already showing results. The national on-time graduation rate is now 75.5 percent, an increase of 3 percentage points since 2002. So we have figured out what to do, it’s a matter of committing the resources to expand the efforts we have begun:

  • Start early with high-quality pre-k programs.
  • Identify students in late elementary and middle school who exhibit warning signs that they may be in danger of dropping out. These are students with failing grades, low attendance and/or behavior problems.
  • Provide effective interventions including trained mentors for identified students and more guidance counselors who can help students prepare for life high school, including help navigating the college admissions and financial aid process.

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