Of What Value Is a High School Diploma?

I ask this question rhetorically because there is a wealth of data demonstrating the value of a high school education in terms of higher income and greater career advancement compared to dropping out. But when I ask this question, I am also speaking specifically about the typical curriculum that high school offer and the jobs that many high school students will land upon graduation. Let me rephrase the question: Is the usual coursework that most students take on their way to graduation going to prepare them for life after high school? In other words, are courses in English, history, social studies and the like preparing students for the "real world?"

I suppose it is (and they do) if that world after high school includes college. But, despite the fact that high school graduates are going onto college more than ever, that number is much lower among minorities and those who attend low-performing schools. Add to that the current economic climate, higher college tuitions, and fewer scholarship and student loan opportunities, and it's not unreasonable to assume that many students will not be entering higher education in the next decade. For those young people, the market for jobs that offer a living wage isn't a much better option than college because they leave high school with few if any practical skills. So, in essence, a large proportion of graduates are leaving high school thoroughly unprepared to compete in the increasingly competitive job market.

We're already seeing many students struggle with completing high school (about one third of all students and nearly half of all Hispanics and Blacks). The reasons why are myriad including poverty, poor early preparation by parents, a subculture that doesn't value education, and low-performing schools. Another contributor to this equation lies in the students themselves who either have little interest in a typical high school curriculum or who see no practical value of a diploma to them. Because many high school students believe that most of what they learn in high school has little or no use in the real world, it's not surprising that they demonstrate little motivation to aspire to a diploma.

But what if high school students who weren't capable or motivated enough to go to college wanted to have a career after graduation? Don't they deserve a chance to get ahead? With this perspective, I believe that high schools should provide two tracks to a diploma, one that readies students for college and the other for a career that offers a reasonable wage and opportunities for career advancement. I realize the idea of high schools offering paths to both college and a vocation is not new; some sort of vocational training has been a part of some high school curricula for years. But given the efforts at public education reform that are currently being made, this oh-so-practical approach to high school education would seem worthy of serious consideration.

But this two-track path to high school education is actually losing steam because the so-called industrial arts, otherwise known as shop class, have been the first casualties of school budget cuts. Yet, high school dropouts will cost the U.S. almost $320 billion in lost wages (add in ill-prepared high school graduates and that number soars). That sounds short sighted to me.

When students learn about carpentry, metal work, automobile repair, wood working, electronics, etc., they are laying the foundation for a career in the trades, historically stable and decent-paying jobs that are usually in reasonable abundance because they can't be outsourced. They can enter the work force with some degree of preparedness which not only increases their chances of landing a good job, but, just as importantly, gives them confidence in themselves and hope for a better future.

As the product of a liberal arts education, I often tell people that I had a "worthless" major, psychology, because it offered me no real skills upon graduation. Yet, I value liberal arts education immensely because of the broad range of ideas and knowledge to which students are exposed allowing them to become well-rounded and engaged citizens. But a liberal arts education, which is what the typical high school curriculum offers, is a luxury that many young people can ill afford. Let's get real. Even if unmotivated students learn about the classics, political science, and philosophy (and they likely won't), that knowledge won't pay the bills.

I also spent my summers working as a carpenter through high school and college and learned to work on cars. Not only did I gain some practical skills, but I also learned about the satisfaction of making something from nothing and the pride of fixing something that was broken. I was fortunate that I didn't need to use those skills to support myself later in life, but I still value (and use) them to this day. High school students who aren't on an academic track can gain the same career and psychological benefits that they can put to immediate use following graduation.

And my argument for a vocational track in high school is not intended to push students down a particular path in high school or to limit the options available to them. To the contrary, when our public education system offers two educational paths in high school that actually meet the needs of a diverse range of students, it will give students more choices and more opportunities for gainful employment after they graduate. Perhaps just as important, it just might motivate a large swath of high school students who are either heading toward dropping out or will graduate with no useful skills to apply themselves in high school. Why? Because, quite simply, they will see that what they learn will actually help them get ahead in life.