Fifty years ago, only four out of ten jobs required a high school diploma. Today, nine out of ten jobs demand a diploma, and four out of five jobs in the fastest growing occupations require formal education after high school.
Young people have absorbed the message that higher education is vital. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, 77 percent of the high school class of 1992 attended at least one postsecondary institution within 8.5 years of graduation, compared with 63 percent for the class of 1982 over an 11-year period, and 58 percent for the class of 1972 over a 12-year period.
But despite this ubiquitous embrace of higher education, an astonishing 49 percent of college freshmen need remedial college courses before they can proceed to credit-bearing coursework. Remediation is costly, time-consuming and often so demoralizing that a significant number of college freshmen never return for a sophomore year. Many of them do not understand what would make them successful in the college classroom. They do not know that the odds are stacked steeply against those who fail to complete a defined sequence of rigorous academic courses during high school.
Employers struggle with the reverse side of the same coin. The 21st century workplace can only absorb a fraction of the people who will graduate from high school satisfying only the current state minimum requirements. Yet many students and their parents wrongly assume that youth can enter the workforce immediately after high school with marginal preparation. They believe employers will train and advance them.
That may have been true in the past, but today companies only invest training dollars in persons who already have a proven aptitude for learning. A recent report from the American Diploma Project found that employer expectations for career-track positions in high-growth, highly skilled jobs match or even exceed the intellectual demands of postsecondary education.
Employers particularly value knowledge and skills that-with good teaching, discipline and diligence-can and should be acquired in high school: Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, as well as the reading, writing, and related communication skills gained through four years of traditional English coursework. Businesses also want employees and community members who understand civics, commerce and taxation, and who are able to plan for their own retirements.
Employers who trade with foreign partners and either manage or report to persons in other countries prefer employees-all things being equal-with exposure to a language other than English. Based on the needs of employers, if large percentages of students continue to leave high school without the proper skill set, the U.S. will experience a sizeable labor shortage in the most vibrant sectors of the job market in the coming decade.
As higher education and corporate America go head to head for the current three out of ten high school students with the tools to thrive after high school, we should think about how to send a clear, consistent message to students, parents and teachers that will increase the number of persons in the pipeline who can assume roles reserved for the well-educated.
The bottom line is that we must join together to demand more of all secondary students. Research strongly indicates that students who have completed rigorous coursework in high school, regardless of grades, are better equipped to advance to higher education, succeed in workplace or military training programs, and/or resume their education in preparation for career changes at a later date.
We must also ensure that the content taught in high schools, especially in math and science, keeps pace with the demands of an increasingly technological workplace. Additionally, employers and colleges must give principals and teachers concrete examples of soft and hard skills students need to take the next step so that educators can make classroom learning relevant to life after high school.
We must also increasingly focus the culture and tone of American high schools on achievement. It is not enough simply to finish coursework and receive a high school diploma. Achievement is also defined by curiosity, discipline, tenacity and self-confidence.
A highly successful vehicle for motivating students to complete rigorous courses and begin developing the mindset needed for lifelong learning and adaptability is the business-led State Scholars Initiative. Volunteer presenters from a variety of business sectors connect the classroom to the workplace by presenting both the economic value of education and a roadmap of opportunities aimed at college, the workplace, and a fulfilling life. They explain that these avenues are open to students who challenge themselves to master a set of academically rigorous courses, and that those who avoid academic enterprise during high school will have a more difficult time locating an entrance ramp later in life.
State Scholars Initiative business volunteers in 13 states usually begin a dialog with all students in the eighth grade just before high school course selection gets underway. Volunteers encourage all students to set their sights high and complete math through Algebra 2, the three lab sciences-biology, chemistry and physics-four years of English, three and a half years of social studies and two years of a language other than English.
The business community also arranges recognition and incentives for students who volunteer for, and persist in, the course of study through graduation. Incentives range from token movie passes and retail discounts to career days held exclusively for "Scholars." Some businesses further reinforce the message by instituting policies to request high school transcripts as part of the hiring process. Most communities recognize Scholars at or near high school commencement. Such seemingly small rewards can be a surprisingly potent inducement to students not typically singled out for academic rewards.
As increasing numbers of average students tackle and complete the coursework, parents become less apprehensive about encouraging more youngsters to challenge themselves. Schools often have to find innovative solutions that meet greater student demand for chemistry and physics sections. Not surprisingly, movement in the ranks below often has an effect on elite students, who push themselves into more demanding advanced studies. Across the board, the State Scholars Initiative raises student, parent and teacher expectations and fosters a stronger culture of achievement.
In the more advanced implementations of State Scholars, institutions of higher education offer tuition breaks to Scholars. For example, some Arkansas colleges offer free tuition to Scholars during the freshman and sophomore years. In Texas, legislators tied large-scale financial aid programs to the course of study rather than to grade point average. That measure has dramatically raised high school course completion patterns statewide and is thought to be the reason behind higher college retention among students from low-income and non-white households when compared to the rate for students whose financial aid is based on GPA.
Higher education can help impress upon youth and parents the importance of rigorous course completion by:
- Working with school districts in their service areas to spell out the topics for high school coursework that are essential to begin college level study.
- Supporting efforts to make the Scholars course of study the expectation for most students.
- Adding a merit component to financial aid that is tied to rigorous course completion, de-emphasizing the less relevant GPA or class rank.
- Making rigorous course completion a criterion for preferential or automatic admission to public colleges and universities.
- Adopting the Scholars course of study as a criterion for geographically selective free tuition or free books at two-year community and technical colleges.
- Looking at the performance data of students who did and did not complete the Scholars course of study to determine its effects on college retention, remediation, GPA and graduation.
Colleges want students to enroll in and complete their formal education. Businesses want employees who are not merely technically trained, but who possess the ability to grow continually and retool for the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The wellspring for these two sets of similarly equipped students is our public high schools. We should do everything in our power to motivate students to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to experience meaningful learning and to enjoy more fulfilling careers and lives. They will be less likely to require costly remediation and more likely to be productive citizens who contribute to our companies, our communities, and the broader economy.
The investment we make in encouraging students to acquire a solid academic foundation during high school pays incalculable dividends. This is an issue that needs to be on the agenda of every educator and executive.
Robert Mosbacher, Jr., is president of Mosbacher Energy and serves on the board of directors of the Center for State Scholars.