Extra Help: Behind a New Targeted Push to Boost High School Graduation Rates

photo:  pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/shutterstock

photo:  pixelheadphoto digitalskillet/shutterstock

The high school graduation rate in the U.S. is higher than ever at 83.2 percent, but demographic gaps persist, according to a study out of Johns Hopkins University. A new project from America’s Promise Alliance hopes to address those gaps, while advancing the coalition’s goal to reach a 90 percent high school graduation rate nationwide by 2020 through its GradNation campaign.

The national graduation rate won’t make the 2020 target unless the achievement gaps among students shrink.

"We know, from years of research and knowledge building that increasing the number of high school graduates in key subgroups—African American and Latino students, students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students who live in low-income communities—is what will get the nation to our 90 percent goal," said Monika Kincheloe, senior director at America’s Promise.

To that end, America’s Promise Alliance has started work with AT&T on a project targeting states where funds can make the biggest difference. The alliance plans to fund two state-level and three community-based initiatives. The projects may be based in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania or Washington.

"We recognize that for young people, change happens locally and that’s why we will support smart, effective and focused efforts in these key states that are ready to accelerate their progress,” Kincheloe said.

The states were picked because successes there could move the needle nationally. If the graduation rate in those 10 states reached 90 percent, it would push the national rate to 85.9 percent, according to the alliance’s calculations. That number represents about 120,000 low-income students, 40,000 black students, 55,000 Latino students, 46,000 students with disabilities and 34,000 English learners, the alliance said.

In 10 states, the graduation rate for Latino students was below 70 percent. It ranged from 70 to 80 percent in 22 states. For African American students, the number of graduates dropped below 70 percent in 12 states and ranged from 70 to 80 percent in 25 states. Low-income student graduation rates fell below 70 percent in 11 states and ranged from 70 to 80 percent in 28 states.

For comparison, states on track to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020 had a rate of 85 percent or more in 2015, the year the study’s data was gathered. The graduation rate was at least 85 percent for white students in 33 states, and 85 percent in 43 states for middle- and high-income students.

Much of the progress since 2011 came from more students of color graduating. There was a 6.8 percent increase in the number of Latino students graduating and a 7.6 percent increase for African American students. Despite the improvements, students of color graduate from about six to nine percentage points below the national average.

About half the states have an at least 85 percent graduation rate and are on track to reach the 90 percent goal by 2020, according to the study written by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and released by the Alliance for Excellent Education and America’s Promise Alliance.

In raw numbers, that would mean roughly 250,000 more students would have to graduate to meet the target.  As a frame of reference, that would be enough to fill the Rose Bowl stadium about three times, so it’s not insurmountable. Growth has slowed recently, though, failing to increase more than 1 percent annually for the past two years.

The alliance’s GradNation campaign has been around since 2010, and has some big names behind it, including State Farm, Boeing, the AT&T Foundation, the GE FoundationTarget, Pearson, and the Citi and Ford foundations.

There’s no shortage of K-12 funders, but few choose high school graduation rates as their main issue. One reason could be that graduation rates are higher than ever. Some funders, like the Gates Foundation, focus instead on ensuring students who graduate are ready for college. Others address early childhood, when some believe interventions are most successful. Meanwhile, many funders who invest in charter schools, improving teaching, or bolstering school managers believe that a key dividend from these efforts will be higher graduation rates. Funders working to reinvent high schools—most notably the Carnegie Corporation and Emerson Collective—believe the same thing. More highly engaged students are far more likely to get across the finish line. 

What everyone can agree on is that a high school diploma still makes a tangible difference for students. It can mean the difference between a job and unemployment. For those with jobs, it means an average of $8,000 more a year than a dropout would earn. High school graduates tend to have better health and longer life expectancy, and are more likely to vote. For the country as a whole, a 90 percent graduation rate for just one year would translate to a $7.2 billion increase in annual income and a $1.1 billion jump in federal taxes collected.

With that kind of impact, it’s surprising that more funders aren't monomaniacal about bolstering America's high school graduation rate.