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Celebrate graduation, but know high school diploma no longer enough

The late-spring season for high school graduation arrives in North Carolina amid a summer-like heat wave and a flurry of good-news-bad-news analyses of post-graduation prospects. Parents, siblings, grandparents, friends and neighbors assemble for ceremonies that have more cultural than economic import in the second decade of the 21st century.

Graduation season calls to mind one of my favorite lines from a State of the South report, produced by MDC, the Durham-based nonprofit of which I am a senior fellow. “In economic terms, a high school diploma these days does as much good as rabbit ears on a computer,’’ said the 1996 State of the South.

How quaint that image appears today in an era of iPhones and “smart’’ TVs. And yet, the finding that seemed so bold two decades ago – that the technology-driven economy makes education beyond the 12th grade imperative – has become conventional wisdom today.

The Pew Research Center reports that undergraduate enrollment increased by more than three million students in the 1995-96 to 2015-16 period. Of the 20 million students in 2015-16, says the Pew report, 47% were non-white and 31% lived in poverty.

“The overall number of undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, with growth fueled almost exclusively by an influx of students from low-income families and students of color,” reports Pew, noting especially the influx of Hispanic students. Pew also points out that the “rise of poor and minority undergraduates has been most pronounced in public two-year colleges and the least selective four-year colleges and universities.”

Even as high school graduation rates have climbed and college-going has increased, there is widespread concern over leaks in the school-to-career pipeline through which young people exit education. David Leonhardt and Sahil Chinoy of The New York Times write this week of a “college drop-out crisis’’ that contributes to economic inequality.

“Many lower-income and middle-class students excel in high school only to falter in college,” they write. “They then struggle to get good jobs. College matters so much because it isn’t just about book learning or the development of tangible skills. It’s one of the first obstacle courses of adult life.”

In collaboration with the Urban Institute, Leonhardt and Chinoy published a fascinating analysis of 368 U.S. universities in terms of how well — or not so well — they propel students to graduate. North Carolina’s public universities ranked among the top in higher-than-expected graduation rates. The Leonhardt-Chinoy article specifically cites North Carolina Central University and Fayetteville State University.

The economic rationale for all high school graduates to pursue education beyond 12 grades remains essentially the same as in 1996: learn more, earn more. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics charts show that Americans with an associate or bachelor’s degree have significantly higher earnings and lower unemployment than people with no more than a high school diploma. 

And yet in North Carolina, as well as nationwide, this post-recession decade has eroded lifetime earnings prospects for people at every level of educational attainment, as Jessica Stanford of Carolina Demography recently reported. Stanford estimated shifts in prospective median lifetime earnings for North Carolinians aged 25 to 64 from 2007 to 2017. For people with a high school diploma or GED, she calculated a drop from $1.83 million to $1.7 million; for people with a bachelor’s degree, a drop from $2.45 million to $2.34 million. 

Almost certainly in today’s labor market, some employers require post-secondary degrees to fill jobs at a high-school skill level. Still, education beyond high school is not so much about first-jobs as about erecting a career of life-long learning. Even with the recent erosion, Stanford found that “workers in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in 2017 could expect to earn 79% more than workers with just a high school diploma or GED certificate and 37% more than associate degree-holders.”

Political and policy deliberations now reflect the shift in educational imperative. The Tennessee Promise is getting attention for its early success in offering scholarships and mentoring for students in that state’s community and technology colleges. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed community college tuition grants for students in high-demand fields.

In much of the 20th century, the high school graduation rate was a high-value measurement, and family-supporting jobs were available to diploma-holders. In the 21st century, completion of post-secondary credentials and degrees matters more, and a pertinent question now arises as to whether grades 13 and 14 should be considered as free public education as grades K through 12. It’s an issue worthy of presidential and gubernatorial campaign debates in 2020.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.