Of What Value a High School Diploma?

May 26th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

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 schools 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.

(This article was also published at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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9 Responses to “Of What Value a High School Diploma?”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Jim, I agree that going back to the option of technical/vocational high schools would be a very good thing. It’s an excellent idea that would go a long way toward resolving some of the problems we have in schools today.

    However, there are other things that need to be done, including improved teacher training, merit pay for the best teachers, easier dismissal of teachers who under-perform, and cleansing schools of groups and activities that promote politically correct things that don’t belong in schools — groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. We should also somehow (I’m not sure how) shield the education process from politically-oriented school boards which dictate what history is taught, etc. These things are outside the idea you’ve advanced, but they’re part and parcel of the problem.

    There are a few questions, though. How are the students who will go into the technical/vocational track going to be selected, and when? What will the selection be based on? Will it be mandatory? Who will make it mandatory, and how, considering that schools are run by local school boards and states?

    Perhaps the federal government can encourage the process through a program similar to NCLB and with funding incentives. The selection could happen at the ninth-grade level through IQ and aptitude testing (you know more about that than I do). The IQ testing is essential, given that it’s one of the strongest predictors of future achievement both academically and in a career. Then, students will enter tenth grade in either an academic, college-prep track or a tech/vocational track.

    But, it won’t work very well, or maybe at all. People may agree in principle, but the NIMBY factor will be huge. Can’t you hear the howls from the successful lawyer being told that his son with the 102 IQ and high mechanical aptitude has to go to vocational training to be an auto mechanic instead of to college and law school? What’s to stop him from saying the hell with you guys, my son’s going to private school and college! Or how about the howls of racism, when it turns out (and it will) that a much higher percentage of African American and Hispanic kids don’t qualify for the academic track? Then there’s the widespread muttering and complaining about almost all the Asian and Jewish kids being tracked toward academics and colleges.

    All of these problems will result in our fractured, racially oversensitive, dumbed-down society. Sad to say, maybe this is another good idea that’s too good to happen, except in a voluntary, hit-and-miss way that really doesn’t solve the problem.

  2. larry ennis |

    Dr. Jim
    In a word,”Liberalism”.
    Why do I make such a blanket statement? Because your article makes my point much better than it detracts from it. You give the student far to much control. The results are visible everywhere you look.

  3. d |

    The kids should be able to choose their path,not Gov.tested to humiliate them. Those kids wanting to go to vocational school will know what they want to do in high school. Problem I have is most vocational training is so limited. Shop,carpentry,automotive, boy stuff. Why not have business managment,secretarial training,way more computer skills? How to make a slamming application and resume. The stuff I learned in High School was important,but I don’t use a lot of it,I could have used basic skills to get a job,more efficiently. Even a real class on raising children and child abuse prevention would be great.Real life skills are badly needed, by these grown-ups leaving school and entering the real world.

  4. d |

    Larry,in this day and age, these kids are adults,most having to earn a living and pay for their own college, if they go. Give them the ability to earn a decent wage,not all work at McDonalds for minimum wage or less,mostly less,all part time with no benefits.Do conservatives think their 17-18 year olds are children? What a wake up call they are gonna get,when told I am an adult,I’ll do what I want. I had that one twice,scary,but guess what ,they are adults and can do what they want,if they can support themselves. Lots of them have babies,too,let’s prepare them for making a good living for themselves, and those babies.
    Espially since you conservatives, are against all forms of sex education and birth control classes.

  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: Actually, IQ loses its predictive ability the longer someone is on school or on the job. Then knowledge and skills become the best predictor.

    @Tom & d: I think the students should choose, not be tracked into one or the other path based on IQ or grades or what-have-you. Yes, there will be some divergence based on race, etc., but that already happens with dropouts, etc., and at least this two-track approach offers a better alternative than dropping out or getting a diploma with no skills.

    And, d, vocational training should include all of the courses you mentioned, not just the industrial arts. Sex ed and parenting classes are a must! Or just invite Bristol Palin in to speak:



  6. larry ennis |

    I can only speak from my past experience. It took me 39 years to go from first grade to obtaining a degree. I witnessed many changes in the way education was delivered to the masses. I took off a lot of time while my wife and I raised our kids but never gave up. My daughter was the only one of my kids that I could convince to continue her education. My two sons are part of that vast group that can’t find decent work. They are also part of the ever growing student body that was offered too many alternate choices during their school years. No one wanted to force them(God forbid)to study or take boring or difficult classes.

    I taught vocational classes for seven years after my retirement. I helped students to learn the skills necessary to become journeyman electricians. Far to many of these young adults could just barely read much less do simply math. All had diplomas or GED’s. I’m proud that my efforts and theirs resulted in good paying employment for almost everyone I worked with. The really great part is that these people will always be in demand because of their skill’s.

    The universal feeling among these young adult students was that the school systems had to a large degree failed to prepare them for life in the work force.

  7. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @larry: Great perspective from someone in the trenches! I’m really glad you shared that with us.

  8. d |

    Then we agree,Larry. I admire that you taught,it is a tough,but rewarding job. I also agree, that they are barely taugt to read,they are passed along, if it is too hard for them. No great effort is put into any one child,if the parents are negligent,then the children show it in their lack of reading and math skills. Too bad all teachers don’t care or have the time to care.
    They really need life skills and reading skills,plus a lot of them can’t even add or multiply,they use calculators. If the electricity goes out,the folks at the stores can’t,heaven forbid,add up your purchases,don’t know how.

  9. d |

    A sad state of affairs,While trying to get my grand daughter into pre-K,I found this out: You have to make under $33,800. to qualify for school district free pre-k,or you can make any salary if you don’t speak English.? That makes me mad,so she can’t go. My child cannot get a free pre-k education ,but an illegal child can. In what realm of reality does this make sense?

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