It’s a pretty well-known fact that a high school diploma isn’t worth much these days. The vast majority of well-paying jobs (and even some that don’t pay well) require a college degree. People without a high school diploma are all but guaranteed to live in poverty, and only having a high school diploma doesn’t raise your chances much. Partially this is because of changes in the economy and the higher demand for skilled workers. But partly, I argue, it’s because the diploma doesn’t stand for anything.
Think about it—ideally, a diploma, whether from a high school or college, tells the world that you have completed an educational course and now are proficient in the areas covered in that program. The diploma gives potential employers an idea of your capabilities—if I graduate college with a degree in English, the employer can make a good bet that I can read and write proficiently. It’s a kind of pre-check that saves the employer time. Rather than exhaustively testing applicants to see if they are capable of basic job functions, the diploma allows employers to move past the basics and find candidates who are the best fit.
A high school diploma doesn’t do that, though. As an employer, I have no guarantee that a high school graduate can do anything other than semi-reliably show up to class. Because graduation requirements are often based on time-in-class, you don’t need to actually be able to perform tasks to employment standards. When I look at resumes without a college degree on them, I don’t have anyone’s word for it that the applicant can read, write, do basic sums, speak politely to customers, understand politics, receive or give feedback, or any of the myriad of skills almost all jobs require. There’s no real reason that an employer would take a chance on someone in the case.
College isn’t the right choice for everyone, and it’s often not accessible to the very people who need the most help improving their financial situation. But employers will continue to demand college degrees unless we re-structure high school to produce graduates with real skills.
The first step is embracing competency-based assessments, which some states have already begun to do. Rather than automatically moving on from a class once you’ve taken enough hours, students would be required to demonstrate an acceptable level of mastery before graduating from a class. This gives actual weight to a high school diploma already, by guaranteeing that the student has actually received an education that they absorbed, rather than just being present in a classroom.
The second step would be re-shaping required curricula to be useful for the workplace and life afterward. I’m not talking about shuttling kids into vocational programs, though those programs can have a beneficial impact. I mean creating classes that prepare students for life as adults. For instance, I had a civics class, an economics class, and a health class, all of which were required for graduation. However, I didn’t learn how to pay taxes, register to vote, get a loan, cook healthy food, find a doctor, or anything else required for living on my own. A mandatory life skills course that combined aspects of home ec, economics, health, civics, job skills like interviewing, and more, would be far more useful to all students, but especially those who are not continuing on to college.
I thrived in the current system, and I loved my liberal arts education and my time in college. But we have to take a serious look at our educational system and ask, who is it serving? What is the value-add of a high school diploma? When we are forcing students to go to a four-year program that has essentially no value on its own, we have to seriously consider a radical change. We are not serving our students well. While these proposed changes come with real challenges of their own, I believe they would be a step in the right direction.
This article is the opinion of the author alone and does not reflect the opinions of his employer.