Success Without College? Yes, With the Right Academic Preparation

Ask new high school graduates what their plans are and chances are very good they will say college. Once a sign of privilege, going to college is now seen as almost a rite of passage. And little wonder. By 2020, two-thirds of all jobs will require education beyond high school. But what about the small proportion of grads who, for whatever reason, say "enough" to school? What does the future hold for them? And what difference, if any, does high school make in their ability to be productive, self-supporting adults?

We recently published a study at the Center for Public Education that examines these questions based on the experiences of the graduating class of 2004. The analysis, The Path Least Taken II: Preparing non-college goers for success , is by Jim Hull and is the second in a series of reports that take a close look at the 12 percent of high school graduates who had not enrolled in college by age 26.

Our first finding was not a big surprise. Like other studies, Hull's analysis found that a high school diploma alone is not a sure ticket to getting and keeping a good job that pays decent wages. Overall, college-goers are much more likely than non-college goers to work full-time in a job with benefits and far less likely to be unemployed or receive public assistance. But the report also found that a high school preparation with certain characteristics can give a big boost to non-college goers, making them as likely - and in some cases more likely - to fare well economically as their college-going peers.

The high school factors that were identified as having an impact are:
Algebra II. For decades, education researchers have found a correlation between this high-school course and college-going, college completion, employment, wages, voting, community volunteering, healthy living ... the list seemingly goes on and on. While research has yet to identify a cause and effect, evidence continues to mount that high-level mathematics in high school is a powerful predictor of success in work and life. And its impact extends to adults without college. High-level science also made a big difference in predicting outcomes for non-college goers.
An occupational concentration. This is defined as three or more vocational courses in a specific labor market area. Interestingly, taking unrelated vocational courses had little or no effect.
Above average GPA. The successful non-college goers tended to have earned a grade point average of at least a C+ while in high school.
Professional certification or license. Earning a professional certificate or license showed its influence more often than any other factor.

While each of these factors typically has a positive effect, their greatest power is in combination. At age 26, non-college goers with the full suite of above credentials earned about $8.50 more per hour than non-college goers who completed high school with none of them. What's more, the high-credentialed non-college goer earned $3.00 more per hour than his or her college-going classmates. That translates to about $6,000 more per year for a full-time job.

The benefits continue. High-credentialed non-college goers were more likely than college goers to work full-time (80 percent to 70 percent) and to have a job with medical insurance (90 percent to 75 percent). On the flip side, however, graduates who earned few of these credentials in high school faced the dimmest prospects as adults. Fewer than half of them worked full-time at age 26. About a third of them had been unemployed for more than six months. They were the most likely to receive public assistance.

Our analysis offers more proof that the academic preparation that leads to success in college serves double duty for success in the workplace. For this reason, school districts need to make sure all high school students complete high-level math courses -- at least through Algebra II or its equivalent - and high-level science. They should further provide opportunities for students to complete a vocational program that leads to professional certification.

Giving students the support they need to be successful is essential. All students need to be well-informed about the range of after-high school options, including college, jobs and financial aid. It also means helping them develop personal plans as early as middle school and monitoring their progress towards meeting it.

Equipping all graduates with these tools, we believe, benefits everyone - non-college goers and college goers alike. After all, we expect all of them to be working eventually.

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