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Potential Dividends from More High School Graduatescomment (0)

September 26, 2013

By Jim Williams

By the year 2020, 90 percent of students should be graduating on time from Alabama high schools, under a goal adopted in 2012 by the State Board of Education.    

This is an ambitious goal, but it could have a big payoff for the graduates and for the state’s economy.

When the goal was set, the on-time graduation rate was 72 percent. Local school systems got off to a good start, raising the rate by three points to 75 percent in the first year. However, consistent increases of about two points a year will be needed to make the state’s goal.

Students who graduate from high school are more likely to work steadily, and they are more valuable to their employers. Census Bureau data show that a typical high school dropout makes less than $11,000 a year. In contrast, a high school graduate earns twice as much (about $21,600) and an individual with an associate’s degree makes about three times as much ($32,600). Individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, about four times ($42,800) what a high school dropout earns each year. 

Alabama’s public high schools graduated 45,220 students in 2011. With a 90 percent graduation rate, they would have produced over 11,300 more graduates. Assuming the averages hold true, this would add at least $120 million to annual earnings in Alabama — more if college degrees also increase as a result. With this would come about $12 million in added tax collections for state and local governments each year.

The indirect benefits also would be substantial. For example, research shows that the higher graduation rate would mean lower crime rates, fewer arrests and less need for incarceration. Using the relationships estimated in one academic study, the crime-reduction benefits from meeting Alabama’s goal would add up to $23 million a year in savings. The study’s authors wrote, “It is difficult to imagine a better reason” for policies to improve the graduation rate.

But graduating 90 percent will require focusing individually on each student, across all grades. It will be important to follow their performance using the new state exams that track the path to college and career readiness, as well as to monitor trends in attendance, discipline and classroom grades.  

Perhaps the greatest benefit from pursuing the new goal will be increased appreciation of the stake we have in each student. 

EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Williams is executive director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Jim may be contacted at jwwillia@samford.edu.

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