Education: A high school diploma is opportunity

Education is one of the most effective ways to positively impact an individual’s life. Improved access to educational resources has been demonstrated to increase the economic potential of the student often leading to positive health and social outcomes. As the UN Secretary-General’s Global Initiative on Education states: “Education is a major driving force for human development. It opens doors to the job market, combats inequality, improves maternal health, reduces child mortality, fosters solidarity, and promotes environmental stewardship. Education empowers people with the knowledge, skills and values they need to build a better world.”

According to a study released in 2015 by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, the divergence in health status between American with and without an education has been clearly documented and is increasing year on year. The study found that “…Between 1990 and 2008, the life expectancy gap between the most and least educated Americans grew from 13 to 14 years among males and from 8 to 10 years among females. The gap has been widening since the 1960s.” This impact is most pronounced when the level of education is measured as the equivalent of a high school education. The study’s authors state “…Adults with fewer than 12 years of education have been dying sooner since the 1990s. While overall life expectancy has generally increased, it has decreased for whites with fewer than 12 years of education, especially white women. Among whites with less than 12 years of education, life expectancy at age 25 fell by more than three years for men and by more than five years for women between 1990 and 2008.”

This can be attributable, in part, to the skills and networks that children acquire during their school years as well as the jobs and resources they are able to access as they enter and progress through the workforce. This includes the increased likelihood of better paying jobs which, in turn, allows for the individual to spend their days in healthier neighborhoods with more access to healthcare and to healthy lifestyle options. 

According to the most recent data issued by the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics), the national high school graduation rate was 82.3% in 2014. While this rate has been consistently increasing since 2009, the rate is still short of the federal target of 90% by 2020. The disparity in graduation rates is quite pronounced between states and among different population groups within the learning cohort.

Source: Education Week

Source: Education Week

Leading the pack in graduation rates are Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa with average graduation rates of 88.6%, 89.7%, and 90.5% respectively. On the other end of the spectrum we find Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico. The graduation rates in these states lag the national average significantly at 71.1%, 70%, and 68.5%. Surprisingly there does not seem to be a clear and consistent correlation between how much per student a state spends on education and how well they perform when measured on the metric of cohort graduation rates.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of charter, alternative and virtual high school programs nationwide. These schools as a whole underperform the national average with 30% of charter schools and 57% of alternative schools having a graduation rate of 67% or less. Virtual high school programs fail miserably with 87% of these programs having a graduation rate of 67% or less. This is in comparison to the 7% of regular high schools with this poor of a graduation rate.

The problem of poor educational outcomes is more pronounced for students from disadvantaged populations. Low-income students, regardless of race or ethnic background, have a graduation rate of 74.6% while African American students graduate at a rate of 72.5% and Hispanic/Latino students at a rate of 76.3%. Students with identified disabilities only graduate at a rate of 63.1%.

While there are exceptional school systems in every state, this failure to properly educate and equip the next generation of Americans with the basic skills necessary to succeed in the modern workforce is problematic. Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between education and economic success. Additionally, a link has been established between education level and health outcomes. Finally, a well-educated population has proven to be linked to a lower crime rate and better overall community health.

As we evaluate K - 12 school systems for inclusion in the SNW Impact Strategy, performance metrics such as graduation rates are one of the many criteria considered. This rate, however, is one of the most readily available metrics and is one that school administrators and local governments are most visibly measured on. Because of this scrutiny, we feel that this rate, barring extraordinary circumstances, is a clear indicator of the emphasis by such leaders on the importance of educational outcomes. Schools must have a trailing three-year average graduation rate that is higher than the national average in order to be included in SNW Impact portfolios. The only exception to this rule are school systems in economically disadvantaged communities that have demonstrated positive performance trends as evidenced by an improvement in the graduation rate of 8% or more over the last three years. In these cases, we feel that the impact of such improvements on both the students and the community are significant enough to warrant investment consideration.