Database: Career Ready

Career Ready, Your Future

High school rigor is key to success for students who don't go to college

Naomi Dillon

With their k-12 experience behind them, some high school graduates launch into familiar back-to-school rituals like reviewing school schedules, shopping for supplies, and attending university orientation.

These students who attend college right after high school make up a small group -- or so we thought when we embarked on the Path Least Taken series, an original analysis of data collected through a decade-long federal study of Class of 2004 graduates.

The title of this series, which saw its third and final installment released in June, was actually influenced by one of the first big discoveries we made: An overwhelming majority of high school grads (eight out of 10) didn’t skip a beat in continuing their education at a two- or four-year university.

Ultimately, we found that about 13 percent of high school graduates from this nationally representative sample of 15,000 did not go on to college over the course of the federal study, which concluded when the participants were 26.

That 13 percent was a smaller than anticipated segment of the population to analyze, but we were determined to learn as much as we could about this group of graduates who did not attend college right away. We’d noticed something in all the rhetoric about ensuring college and career ready graduates: The focus most often was on preparing students for college and, more narrowly, for four-year universities.

Discovering what schools can do to equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge to prosper in the workforce—with the understanding that, college attendee or not, most high school graduates eventually will get a job -- was one of the major aims of this project.

Research identifying the link between high school preparation and college success already exists. Less is known about what that preparation looks like when high school grads decide to enter the workforce instead.

By drilling down into the federal data sets, we had a perfect opportunity to trace the steps of people who did not go to college right after graduation and who had found success in life and the labor market.

Rigor and focus combine to make high credentials

Through our analysis, we not only discovered that few took the noncollege route but confirmed that, on average, those who did not go on to college faced the dimmest prospects of economic and social success when compared to their college-going peers.

However, the storyline shifted dramatically when we added a mix of variables. Those variables included taking high-level math and science courses; earning average to above average grades; taking multiple vocational courses focusing on a specific labor market area (occupational concentration); and earning a professional certification or license.

When those who did not go to college possessed this particular combination of knowledge and job-specific skill sets, which we coined as high credentialed, they were able to achieve comparable, if not better, employment and social outcomes than the average college goer.

Initially, we’d made no distinction in comparing noncollege goers against those who attended a two- or four-year institution—or even between those who earned a degree or simply took some college coursework.

But with so many high school graduates going on to college and little more than half actually earning a degree, we wanted to peer more deeply into just how much this winning formula of competencies and aptitudes sets a student up for success.

Quite a lot, it seems.

Economic outcomes of high school graduates info graph

High credentials a good springboard for all students

No group enjoyed a greater likelihood of success than four-year degree holders, who pulled in dramatically higher wages and contributed much more to retirement than the average noncollege goer by the age of 26. However, those differences shrank when four-year university graduates were compared against noncollege goers who fit our high credentialed category.

These well-prepared individuals reported similar success in many areas, including job security, supervisory experience, and job satisfaction. What’s more, the head start that high credentials brings appear to have helped graduates no matter where they ended up in life.

In virtually every indicator against virtually every group we compared them to, highly credentialed noncollege goers earned higher wages and benefits and achieved greater job stability and satisfaction than their peers who lacked this preparation.

In fact, high credentials made the biggest impact on noncollege goers, who, on average, had the lowest chances of landing full-time employment, making a living wage, and receiving medical insurance. With more rigorous and focused high school courses, however, noncollege goers are the greatest beneficiaries of a highly credentialed curriculum. They attain greater levels of economic success than even those who went to college but failed to graduate.

Our analysis is based on a federal study that ended in 2012, so we don’t know what roads some of these Class of 2004 graduates have taken since. It’s possible, for example, that four-year university graduates have distinguished themselves even further from the pack, earning higher wages and greater opportunities in the years since obtaining their degree. And it’s possible that, after working for a number of years, some noncollege goers have decided to return to school.

Students appear to be much better off, regardless of where they end up, when they complete a rigorous curriculum in high school that includes math at least through Algebra II or its equivalent and high-level lab sciences. They also should have access to modern career and technology education programs that focus on building knowledge and skills in a specific labor market field.

And let’s not forget about guidance counselors, who play an essential role by communicating the varied post-secondary options to middle school and high school students and helping them stay on track toward meeting their individual goals.

While the Path Least Taken series was not meant to be prescriptive, the data plainly shows that, when high schools offer a diverse, rigorous, and supportive learning environment, all students succeed.

Naomi Dillon ( is manager of NSBA’s Center for Public Education. Read the full report at www.centerforpublic

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