High School Diploma: Ticket to Nowhere
Life + Money

High School Diploma: Ticket to Nowhere

REUTERS?Mike Segar

After graduating from a large, private high school in Fairfax, Virginia in 1998, Laura Cruz, now 32, enrolled in the University of South Carolina, but dropped out after only four weeks. She says she didn’t like “regurgitating facts and figures” and thought she’d have more success in the working world.

At first, Cruz “mall-hopped,” picking up seasonal and temporary jobs before snagging her first full-time job as a veterinarian’s receptionist where she was paid $6.50 an hour.  She later became a dog daycare manager where she made $8.50 an hour, and eventually, $12, but after spending five years there, she knew she needed a higher-paying option and looked to the corporate world. She sent out about five resumes a day — every day — for 9 months, with little bite: “They look at your resume and they don’t want to talk to you at all,” Cruz says. “I knew if I could get in the room, I could get the job, but I couldn’t even get in the door.”

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Cruz’s experience is familiar to many high school graduates without an advanced education. A recent survey from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found that of those who graduated high school between 2006 and 2011 and did not continue their education, only three out of 10 have full-time jobs, 30 percent are unemployed and looking for work, and for the lucky ones who are working, the median wage is just $9.25 an hour. Many respondents also reported feeling hopeless about future opportunities: Only 4 percent saw their first jobs as a means to a career, while 79 percent saw them as just a way to get by.

But with rapidly-increasing tuition rates at colleges throughout the country, some have started to question the worth and practicality of pursuing higher education. Billionaire Peter Thiel is even offering $100,000 grants to kids under 20 to start their own company instead of continuing their education. But for most young people, is getting by on a high school diploma alone a viable option in a country where the majority of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree or certificate, and the competition for each spot — even blue collar ones — intensifies each year?

Forty years ago it was a different story — blue-collar jobs in manufacturing industries abounded, union membership was high (34 percent of private sector male employees had a union affiliation in 1973, compared to just 8 percent in 2007), and answering a want ad in the newspaper was about all you needed to get your foot in the door. “Just three decades ago, about three quarters of all the jobs in our economy were being filled with a high school diploma or less,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

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But with fewer and fewer jobs accepting only a high school education, today’s high school graduates are being forced to acquire skills themselves—and at a cost that leaves many mired in debt.

What Education Gets You,
by the Numbers

National High School Graduation Rate: 75.5% in 2009

Median Weekly Earnings
(among full-time workers age 25 or older as of 2011)

High school dropout: $451
High school graduate: $638
Associate degree holder: $768
Bachelor’s degree holder: $1053

Unemployment Rate
(among full-time workers age 25 or older as of 2011)

High school dropout: 14.1%
High school graduate: 9.4%
Associate degree holder: 6.8%
Bachelor’s degree holder: 4.9%

Number of Degrees
(among civilians aged 25 or older as of 2011)

High school diplomas: 61.9 million
Occupational Associate degrees: 8.6 million
Academic Associate degrees: 10.5 million
Bachelor’s degrees: 39.3 million

Trade, technical, and vocational certificates are becoming more popular than ever—according to Georgetown research, more than 1 million certificates were given out in 2010, an increase from just 300,000 in 1994. Certificate costs and time commitments vary—a computer and information science certificate goes anywhere from $6,500 for a six-month program at the Focus-Hope Information Technologies center in Detroit, to nearly $19,000 for a 16-month program at a private, not-for-profit school in West Virginia, according to the Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center. The average cost at a public, less-than-two-year institution, is $6,504 for year, and almost double — $11,810 per year — at a private, for-profit less-than-two-year institution, according to the Center.

The benefit to certificates is that they require less time and money than traditional degrees. Almost all can be completed in two years or less, and in some cases, can lead to more average income than a traditional degree — especially for men. For those in computer and information services working in their field of study, men earn an average of $72,498 per year, or more than 54 percent of men with Bachelor’s degrees, and women earn an average of $56,664, or more than 64 percent of women with a Bachelor’s degree. The problem is, only 24 percent of men and 7 percent of women with computer/information certificates work in their field of study, and salaries for those that enter a different field are typically lower.

“Any young woman needs to know that there’s nothing for her with a high school degree.”

At the same time, many experts worry the quality of a high school diploma is declining and there’s a mismatch of skills. Students simply aren’t learning what they need in order to succeed in the workforce. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 23 percent of high school graduates are not ready for an introductory-level college writing course. In 2009, 26 percent of 12th-graders were reading at a below-basic reading level — in contrast, in 1992, only 20 percent of 12th-graders were placed in this category, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Many states across the country have banded together to address this problem with the Common Core State Standards, an initiative led by the National Governors Association, that aims to incorporate more real-world learning and skills to make every high school student both college- and career-ready. Since they were developed in 2010, 45 states have adopted these standards, but they won’t be fully implemented until the 2014-15 school year. And the jury is still out as to how much of an impact this will make.

According to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the portion of U.S. jobs that required some sort of post-secondary training nearly doubled from 1973 to 2008 — going from 28 percent to 59 percent, and is projected to increase to 63 percent in the next decade. The number of high school graduates in the middle class (defined in the Georgetown study as those who earn between $30,000 and $79,000 for a family of four) is especially dwindling. In 1970, 60 percent of high school graduates were in the middle class, while in 2007, only 46 percent were.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the center, attributes the change to technology and automation in blue collar jobs and a shift to a service-sector society. While in the 1920s, industrial technology deskilled jobs, requiring people to perform repetitive tasks on assembly lines, today electronic machines are so advanced that they can perform many tasks better than humans. “An industrial welder in the auto industry is now a machine,” Carnevale says.

What’s more, a computer may be able to do five tasks instead of one — and with more flexibility comes more knowledge required to operate it, hence the need for more skill in jobs traditionally thought of as blue-collar. While there are still some fields that require only a diploma and pay a living wage, like construction, these fields are not only shrinking, they’re almost overwhelmingly male — according to the National Association of Women in Construction, women made up only 9.6 percent of workers as of 2006. “Any young woman needs to know that there’s nothing for her with a high school degree,” Carnevale says.

A handful of on-accredited community programs are stepping in to fill the gaps. Boston-based YMCA Training Inc. helps high school graduates move out of poverty through a free, intensive five-month training program that prepares them for specific jobs in the Boston area, in medical office support, administrative support, banking, and insurance. Urban youth program Year Up gives stipends to high school grads, helping them earn a certificate or college degree while interning at a major company.

Whether it’s through an Associate’s, Bachelor’s or a training certificate, experts agree that something more than high school is needed in today’s age—not only for students, but for the economy as well. According to Georgetown, by 2018, America will need 22 million new college degrees at the Associate level or higher, to fulfill the needs of the job market, and at least 4.7 million new workers with certificates. The center projects that the country will be more than 3 million college degrees short of reaching that number, with the economy requiring 15 million office and managerial positions, 10 million education positions, and 8 million healthcare positions. In contrast, the center projects only 12 million blue-collar positions being required in 2018.

“Is a high school diploma enough? It’s enough if you’re Lebron James,” Wise says. “But there aren’t many with his talents, so for most of us, you need more than a high school diploma.”