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article imageOp-Ed: How to boost U.S. high school graduation rate to Europe's level

By Calvin Wolf     Feb 15, 2015 in Politics
The U.S. has just experienced an on-time high school graduation rate of 81 percent, which is a record. However, other G-8 nations are doing far better, with many enjoying on-time graduation rates of over 90 percent. What can, and should, the U.S. do?
Few things are more complex than high school graduation rates. The "on time" graduation rate, meaning the percentage of incoming high school freshmen who received a diploma within four years, hit 81 percent for the 2012-13 school years, reports U.S. News. While many people are undoubtedly pleased with our nation's progress, critics are pointing out that other wealthy nations enjoy far higher high school graduation rates, explains Fusion. Germany, Britain, and Japan, our three closest free market competitors, all enjoy high school graduation rates of 93 percent or higher.
But what do these graduation rates mean? Do they all represent completing the same level of education, meaning twelve grades of compulsory education ending at age 17 or 18? Do they all require students to score 70 percent or higher to receive a passing grade? Do they require passing certain standardized tests to receive a diploma?
As a high school teacher, I know that many graduates benefit tremendously from the natural tendency to inflate grades. I worry that nations' obsessions with increasing graduation rates only results in lowering standards and watering down education. Programs like "credit recovery" are often abused to help push apathetic and lackadaisical teens through to graduation. We want our statistics to look nice, and we figure that it is the next step's problem to straighten 'em out.
The only problem with this is that college tuition in the United States is often far more expensive than in other industrialized countries. By inflating grades and churning out underprepared high school graduates, we are dooming many of these underprepared graduates to likely college failure and a mountain of student debt. This is, of course, cruel. High schools should not pad their own statistics and send overconfident but underprepared graduates out into the world, more likely to fail.
Failure in public high school is free. We should not fear it. Students who slack off and must re-take their senior year of high school will be in far better shape, having learned a valuable lesson, than students who are ushered off to college and fail there, when they are paying for the privilege. Though we claim that not helping more students graduate from high school is backward, bigoted, and cruel, why do we ignore what happens to them when they are flunking out of college and prepared to drown in student debt?
If we want to increase high school graduation rates while not blindly shuffling underprepared teenagers into higher education, we should create different levels of high school diplomas and link them to college tuition rates. Students who perform the best will receive higher-level diplomas and receive highly-subsidized college tuition. Students who underperform will receive lower-level diplomas and be required to pay unsubsidized college tuition. Nobody is "locked out" of college tuition, but students who are less likely to succeed at college will be forced to pay more up-front. If their grades improve, their tuition will be reduced.
Many high school students would be encouraged to perform in school by seeing an immediate, real-world benefit in the form of cheaper college tuition. At the same time, apathetic high school graduates who suddenly feel inspired to perform can still go to college. They can work their way to subsidized tuition.
Over time, these real-world motivators will allow us to increase high school graduation rates without sacrificing quality of education. Students, both rich and poor, will be motivated to perform in order to reap actual, guaranteed benefits. Many students may be dropping out of school because they see little benefit in earning higher grades. Why do all that work for A's when, once you graduate, your college tuition will still be out of reach?
By creating different levels of high school diplomas and linking them to tuition rates, we can ensure that all high school students have a chance to earn low-cost college tuition. That is real progress. Students will realize it and take advantage of it. They will benefit from it.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about High school, Graduation rates, high school graduation, Education, Teacher
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