Information Age Education Blog

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College and Job Readiness of U.S. High School Graduates

The very first Information Age Education Blog entry is titled, Are High Schools Seriously Misleading Our Students? (Moursund, 8/22/2010). At that time, about 21% of U.S. students were dropping out before completing their four high school program in four years (on-time graduation), and about 68 percent of the on-time high school graduates were going on to college. Since then the number of students not completing on-time high school graduation has decreased by about two percentage points. The percentage of the on-time graduates going on to college declined a small amount and then recovered. In October 2014, 68.4 percent of 2014 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities (U.S. Department of Labor, 4/16/ 2015.)

Here are three questions important to secondary school students and their parents/guardians:

1.  What are the job prospects for current high school graduates, and have they been getting better or worse over the past five years?

2.  How well are today’s high school graduates who intend to go on to college actually prepared for college?

3.  What are the job prospects for current high school graduates who are not planning to immediately go on to college, and have they been getting better or worse over the past five years?

It seems to me that secondary school students and their parents/guardians should have easy access to good answers to these questions—especially as they apply to students in their local schools and community. However, my 2010 IAE Blog entry did not address this full range of questions. Here is a quote from that IAE Blog entry (Moursund, 8/22/2010):

New data show that fewer than 25% of 2010 [high school] graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam possessed the academic skills necessary to pass [the full range of English, Reading, Math, and Science,] entry-level [college] courses, despite modest gains in college-readiness among U.S high-school students in the last few years.

How can it be that so many college-oriented students take and pass high school courses that they are led to believe are preparing them for college, and yet are not prepared for college? Who is to blame, and what can be done to significantly improve this disastrous situation?

My feeling is that we are doing our students a terrible disservice. We should be making a considerably greater effort to help students understand the quality of precollege education they are obtaining, and how well it is preparing them for likely futures they will encounter in their first few years after leaving high school.

Now, five years later, it would certainly be pleasing to report that the situation has substantially improved. Summary national data is available from ACT. Here are brief answers to the three questions given above:

Q1 and Q3: Unemployment rates for dropouts and for those completing high school but not going on to college are about 31% and 28% respectively (U.S. Department of Labor, July, 2015). I find it interesting that the situation for the high school graduates is just marginally better than for the dropouts.

Q2: The ACT (2015) provides data annually on the percentages of students going on to college who were “qualified” in English, Reading, Mathematics, Science, and All Four Subjects. The site referenced above provides data for the past five years. During that time, the percentage qualified in all four areas went from 25% to 28%. English, Reading, and Math showed modest declines, and science showed a modest increase. In summary, the situation has not improved much over the past five years, and over 70% of students entering college need to take remedial coursework in one or more of the basic subject areas.

Results vary from state to state. See and for state data.

I spent some time examining the data for my home state of Oregon, a state that seems to be typical for the nation. However, I found that some of the data given above may be misleading. For example, quoting from What Happens to Oregon's Dropouts? (Manning, 5/12/2013): “Just 40 percent of high school dropouts in Oregon have full-time jobs.” At roughly the same time, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was about 30%, including both part-time and full-time employed. That is, of the high school dropouts, 30% were unemployed, 28% had full-time jobs, and 42% had part-time jobs.

The Manning report also indicates that the Oregon high school graduates who are not in college have a three-percentage-points higher employment rate than do the high school dropouts. Again, this is not distinguishing between part-time and full-time employment. My conclusion is that it is not easy to find good data, at the state or local regional level, that can help inform high school students and their parents/guardians about local employment conditions.

Perspectives of a Harvard Business School Professor

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter, a top expert on U.S. competitiveness, was recently named the world's most influential business thinker by Thinkers50. Here is part of a recent interview of Porter by Paul Davidson (11/16/2015):

Question. Are you saying a big problem is that we have high-skilled workers who are doing well but not enough middle-skill workers who are in demand and could be making a decent wage and comprising a new middle class?

A: [For middle skills employment] you've got to have some training for but not a full college degree. That could be computer skills, manufacturing-orientated skills, the ability to repair machinery. Apple is a great metaphor. Apple does all of its research and development in America. It has all these brilliant people sitting in Silicon Valley. But until recently, Apple made nothing in America. Zero. And the jobs that were accessible to a good, well-trained worker that knew how to do welding or assembly, none of those jobs had stayed in America. We don't have the workforce.

Question: Isn't one reason a lot of jobs moved overseas is that wages were lower there? Should we keep wages low?

A: We think competitiveness is defined as the ability of companies to compete while maintaining or improving the average standard of living. If you are cutting wages to become more competitive, that's not really more competitive. It's raising the skill and the efficiency of those workers so that they can support and sustain that higher wage. That's what we did in America for 50 years.

Question: Why don't we have the skilled workers?

A: There's a lot of evidence it starts with the K-12 level but moves further into corporate training, publicly funded training, and the community college system. We once had the most skilled workers in the world, and now we don't. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Final Remarks

Over the past few decades, there has been a huge decline in industrial/manufacturing middle class jobs in the United States. Workers in other countries now fill many of these jobs. Michael Porter points to the need for many more U.S. students to get technically-oriented education/training that does not require the type of education one gets in a typical 4-year college degree program.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, students had the opportunity to take a wide range of vocationally oriented courses. As this set of high school opportunities has substantially declined, 2-year community colleges have helped to meet the demand for these courses. However, especially for high school dropouts, getting into and succeeding in such programs of study is a very arduous task.

My personal opinion is that our educational systems are running into an instant gratification versus delayed gratification issue. (There is also the problem that some Talented and Gifted students find school so boring that they drop out!) For a great many teenagers, our current educational system brings little joy and gratification. Many drop out of school, and many others learn and pass courses at a minimal level, because they are not intrinsically motivated to do otherwise. Even when such students graduate from high school they are not prepared either for college or for the good jobs that pay more than the minimum wages, jobs that offer good opportunities to build a decent career.

What You Can Do

Our precollege educational system is making a substantial effort to convince students to stay in school and complete a high school diploma. Their success rate varies considerably from state to state, from school district to school district, and at the individual student level. For you as a teacher and/or parent, think about the individual student. What can you do to have a strong influence on an individual student. Success in this endeavor may well change the student’s life!

References and Resources

ACT (2015). ACT 2015 condition of college & career readiness. Retrieved 11/16/015 from

Davidson, P. (11/16/2015). Harvard professor calls trade deal watershed, says economy lags. USA Today. Retrieved 11/17/2015 from

Manning, R. (5/12/2013). What happens to Oregon's dropouts? Oregon Public Broadcasting. Retrieved 11/16/2015 from

Moursund, D. (12/10/2015). Some characteristics of extra capable students. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/18/2015 from

Moursund, D. (8/22/2010). Are high schools seriously misleading our students? IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/16/20115 from

U.S. Department of Labor (4/16/ 2015). College enrollment and work activity of 2014 high school graduates. Retrieved 11/18/2015 from

U.S. Department of Labor (July, 2015). Employment and unemployment of recent high school graduates and dropouts. Retrieved 11/16/2015 from

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