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Better late than never? At a glance

For most of us, thinking of high school graduation brings memories of walking across a stage to “Pomp and Circumstance” after four years of hard work. But for a persistent and overlooked group of students—late graduates—the picture is different. While we admire their staying power, is it worth the extra effort for them and their schools?

The short answer is yes. Of course on-time graduation remains the best prospect for students, and districts should make on-time graduation the first priority for all students. But the extra work late graduates and their schools put toward earning a high school diploma pays off—not only in academic outcomes, but in every aspect of life including work, civic, and health. Late graduates do markedly better than GED recipients and dropouts. And, when the data is controlled to compare students of equivalent socioeconomic status and achievement level, late graduates come close to on-time graduates’ achievement.

The Center for Public Education found these results by conducting a new study comparing late graduates’ outcomes to their peers who graduated on time and those that did not. (The full study is available on the Center’s web site.) The data for the study came from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88), which followed a nationally representative sample of eighth graders through high school, college, and the workforce until the year 2000. The results, as summarized below, show the benefits late graduates receive and make a strong case for providing students with the extra support they need. Additionally, it makes a case for giving schools the incentives they need to help students that take longer than four years to graduate. 

Who are late graduates?

  • Late graduates are those who take more than four years to graduate high school. They are more likely to be minority or language minority students, live in a poorer household, and have two or more risk factors associated with dropping out.
  • Late graduates end middle school and start high school with skills comparable those who will eventually drop out or receive a GED; in the eighth grade they are no more prepared to go on to high school math or English. Late graduates fall further behind their on-time classmates in ninth grade, where they mainly take non-academic math courses.
  • In high school, late graduates start making better grades than those who will eventually drop out or receive a GED—even though their achievement on standardized tests stays mainly the same. These results may suggest that late graduates exhibit more persistence.

How do late graduates fare? 

In post-secondary education:

  • Late graduates distinguish themselves not so much by enrolling in college, but in completing a degree. While they are not significantly more likely (59 percent) than GED recipients (51 percent) to enroll in college, they are much more likely to go on and obtain either an associates or bachelors degree.

In employment: 

  • More late graduates than GED recipients and dropouts are employed and more hold full-time jobs. Late graduates are also less likely to earn incomes at the low end of the income scale.
  • Late graduates are significantly better off in terms of job benefits. Of the late graduates who were employed after 1994, close to two-thirds (63 percent) held a job that offered retirement benefits compared to just over half (53 percent) of GED recipients and less than half of dropouts (45 percent). Seventy-six percent of late graduates also had health insurance coverage compared to 66 and 61 percent of GED recipients and dropouts, respectively.

In civic participation:

  • Although late graduates are no more likely to be registered to vote than GED recipients, late graduates are significantly more likely to have voted in a recent election (40 percent versus 29 percent).

In health:

  • Late graduates are more likely than GED recipients and dropouts to be non-smokers and to exercise more. There were no differences among the groups in drinking habits.

What can school boards do?

  • It is worth the district’s time and resources to graduate students who fall behind, even if it takes longer than four years.
  • Ensure that all students leave eighth grade prepared for high school work. All students should also take an academic math course in ninth grade to remain in the mathematics pipeline.
  • Identify possible dropouts in middle school and establish effective dropout programs. (See also the Center for Public Education's “Keeping kids in school”)
  • Provide support in high school for low-achieving students to develop their ability to think ahead, persist, and adapt to an environment. These, more than ability, are the crucial qualities that help late graduates succeed.

What policymakers can do

  • Schools should be encouraged through accountability systems to keep all students in school until they graduate—regardless of whether or not it takes longer than the standard four years. It takes time and resources for schools to continue to work with these students, and these efforts should be encouraged, not discouraged.
  • Accountability systems should give schools credit for all students who graduate late, not just those from certain groups like special education students and English language learners.  Students from all backgrounds fall behind their peers for a variety of reasons—many outside the school’s control.

The full guide was prepared by Jim Hull, the Center for Public Education's policy analyst. Special thanks to Cliff Adleman, author of Toolbox Revisited, for his insights on calculating high school graduations using the NELS/PETS datasets. Differences and errors, however, in calculating graduation rates are solely those of the author. Special thanks also to Larry Ogle, formerly of the National Center for Education Statistics, and Terrance Moore, of the Ohio Department of Education, for their insights and suggestions. Errors and opinions found within this guide, however, are solely those of the author.

Posted: February 11, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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