For decades, high school graduation rates flat-lined, reaching about 70 percent nationally in the 1970s through the early part of this century. More than one million students each year failed to graduate with their class, increasing their odds of being unemployed, on welfare, incarcerated, and having children who would continue the dropout cycle.
Building on progress from the Civil Rights movement to education reforms in some areas of the country, the early 2000s ushered in an era of awareness of America's dropout epidemic and brought about significant state and federal policy changes. These efforts focused schools and communities on the pressing problem, leading to greater awareness, better data, targeted improvements, student supports, and meaningful accountability at the school, district and state levels.
The national graduation rate has now hit an all-time high of 82.3 percent, up more than ten percentage points over the last dozen years. Nearly two million more students have graduated rather than dropping out over the last decade.
In spite of this progress, significant challenges remain. For the first time in four years, the nation is off track to reaching the 90 percent goal. Serious graduation gaps persist between students of different races, ethnicities, income-levels, and special needs. For many students, especially those living in poverty, graduating high school is still not the norm, and in many states, there are clear lines between the "haves" and "have-nots" when it comes to earning a diploma and having a pathway to success beyond high school.
A first national sample of high school dropouts in 2006 showed that most could have graduated - and that higher expectations, opportunities to connect coursework to careers, and caring adults who could help students navigate school and life challenges all mattered and could have made the difference between earning and not earning their diplomas. In today's economy, a high school diploma is a stepping-stone to an occupational certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's degree and beyond. Unlike a generation ago, most jobs now require some college.
We all have a role to play in ensuring students receive the supports they need, and the business community is no exception. Many have stepped up to the challenge, including AT&T, helping with the increase in graduation rates in recent years.
AT&T recently announced that employees have provided 1 million hours of mentoring to students who need it the most through its Aspire Mentoring Academy. The evidence shows that mentoring matters and can boost a student's chances of engaging in leadership activities, graduating high school, and going on to college. Mentoring is one intervention that brings us closer to the GradNation Campaign goal of a 90 percent on time graduation rate by 2020, which AT&T has adopted as a company goal as well.
In addition to being the critical pathway to college, graduating from high school means a lifetime of increased earnings, better health, decreased reliance on government assistance and crime, and higher levels of volunteering and other forms of civic engagement, compared to those who drop out. With focus, the dropout problem can be addressed anywhere. It is up to all of us to make sure that it is.
John Bridgeland is former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council & CEO of Civic Enterprises. Nicole Anderson is Assistant Vice President, Social Innovation, and President of the AT&T Foundation.