Across the country, thousands of students are entering their last year of high school. While the vast majority of them started high school four years earlier, unbeknownst to many people, there are a significant number of students who began high school even earlier. Even though, it will take these students more than four years to earn a high school diploma, they will have to complete the same course requirements as their peers who graduated on-time. Even so, in some states these students are not recognized as graduates under their state’s accountability systems.
This begs the question: Should students who take longer than four years to graduate high school be counted as graduates for accountability purposes? Some states don’t count students who graduate late because they feel that allowing students to graduate in more than four years sets a lower bar for high school graduation. On the other hand, other states do count late high school graduates because they feel that any student who completes their academic requirements for a standard high school diploma should be recognized, even if it takes longer than the traditional four years.
Both arguments are focused on ensuring students are properly prepared for life after high school. So, to determine which argument holds the most water we need to find out whether students who graduate late are as well off after high school as students who graduate on-time. This is precisely what our report, Better Late Than Never set out to answer. What we found was that students were, in fact, slightly better off graduating on-time which lends credence to the argument that counting late graduates sets a lower bar for graduation. However, we also found students were much better off after high school if they graduated late than not earning a high school diploma even if they went on to receive GED or other high school equivalency.
For example, late high school graduates are better off than dropouts and GED recipients in a number of postsecondary outcomes where late high school graduates were more likely to:
- have a full-time job with insurance and retirement benefits.
- go onto and succeed in college.
- take part in their communities.
- live a healthier lifestyle.
As our report shows it is preferable for students to graduate on-time but students are much better off after high school if they graduate with a standard high school diploma than not graduating at all, even if they go on to earn a GED. So, not only should states count late graduates as graduates for accountability purposes, states should encourage schools to stick with students who may have fallen behind their peers and get them back on track to graduate with a standard high school diploma even if it takes longer than four years. – Jim Hull