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That High School Diploma? It's Just the Beginning If You Want to Succeed

May 11, 2016
Mortar boards in the air

The days when Americans could count on a high-school degree to provide adequate job opportunities are rapidly disappearing. By 2020, two out of every three positions are estimated to require some kind of post-high school certificate, with many requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Without this, landing a well-paying job will grow harder and harder.
But, to be clear, this is not simply about going to college; it’s about finding ways, as we have in the past, to advance educational attainment.  We used to be concerned about having a fully literate population, and we solved that. Public high schools emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to serve a growing need, and, now, more than three-fourths of our population hold high school diplomas (a number we are still working to expand).
This is also not about social differentiation—who has gone to college and who has not—but recognizing that educational attainment is evolving into a necessary, lifelong learning process. This is the result of the growing complexity of markets and the ways that we work, organize our communities and engage with the technologically sophisticated infrastructure that surrounds us.
Someone may be very capable of succeeding at their first job or second job—or their first or second career—then struggle when economic or societal shifts require them to make a rapid adjustment to stay in the economy. This is particularly true at the lower educational levels when the adaptive learning skills are often insufficient.

These realities should be a clarion call, motivating students, parents, educators and policymakers to get in the game and ensure that they as individuals and we as a country are preparing for the future. 

Even for those understandably nervous about short-term job prospects, the long-range trajectory is clear: Graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree earn on average about half a million dollars more over their lifetime than those with only a high-school diploma.  Moreover, individuals with only a high school diploma are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as those with a college degree.

And yet, by 2020, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will face a shortage of at least 5 million workers with the necessary postsecondary education.
We should all see this as a red alert, especially given the disconnect between employer needs and workforce education levels in too many of our states—and particularly in fast-growing fields involving STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).
While this picture may be stark, I see this as a challenge to make genuine, measurable progress. This urgent reality sheds light on the powerful connection between educational attainment and economic health (more educated workers leads to higher wages, an expanded tax base, more business formation, increased capital investment to match worker skills and greater appeal to relocating enterprises). And it underscores the positive role that colleges, universities and state leaders can play in driving economic growth and redressing economic and social inequality.
Nationally, 40 percent of the population ages 25 to 64 hold an associate, bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree. And, according to the Lumina Foundation, 31 states have set statewide attainment goals, with 16 of those considered “strong quantifiable goals” based on state labor projections and addressing gaps between majority and under-served populations. The result is good for the students who earn a postsecondary certificate or degree, a boon to their communities, and critical to expanding economic growth at the state and national levels.     
At Arizona State University, we have set aggressive targets for expanding access and raising graduation rates. By 2021, we expect to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by more than 25 percent, to more than 19,000 that year.  In tandem, we have seen a 20 percentage-point gain in four-year graduation rates since 2002. 
To be sure, extending this goal in the years ahead will require improving the K-12 system so that we have more college-ready high-school graduates. It means continuing a process that has yielded real progress in graduation rates. And it depends on getting better at addressing the needs of under-represented communities, particularly with a large and growing Latino population. Nationwide, only 15% of Latinos hold a college degree.
Improving these numbers is not only crucial for the Latino community, it’s vital for our nation’s overall health.
Yes, spurring more graduates is a point of focus for us, but we are not alone. Our University Innovation Alliance, comprised of 11 public research universities, has pledged to add 68,000 college graduates by 2025.
But more must be done:  Recognizing that educational attainment is critical to our nation’s global competitiveness, it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure that the next decade will be a robust period of shared prosperity.
The years ahead will be rich with opportunity for innovation and fraught with tumult for those institutions unwilling or unable to adjust to a changing world. The more college graduates we can produce that are adaptable and motivated to learn, the more we will see the inevitable turbulence as a sign of innovation, a source for optimism, and a path toward economic and personal growth.