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Path Least Taken III: At a Glance



When we first embarked on the Path Least Taken series, which concludes with this third installment, we did so because we noticed a lot of attention and resources had been poured into making sure students graduated ready to enter college, but not necessarily the workforce. 

And since not every high school grad will pursue post-secondary education but every graduate will likely work, we thought it was critical that policymakers, school leaders and educators gain a better understanding of how non-college goers fared in the years after graduation, particularly those who attained “success” in life and the labor market.

Right off the bat, one of our working theories was challenged. In delving into data about a nationally representative sample of Class of 2004 graduates, we discovered nearly 9 out of every 10 actually did end up going to college by the time they turned 26, when the federal study concluded.  


The emergence of high credentials

High Credentials: A good springboard for all students
  • Completed Algebra 2 as highest math course and Advanced biology as highest science;  
  • Earned a cumulative GPA between 2.51 and 3;
  • Completed an occupational concentration in high school (three or more vocational courses in a specific labor market area); and 
  • Earned a professional certification or license.
While this was a smaller than anticipated segment of the population to analyze, we were able to make other important discoveries. Most importantly, we found that non-college goers did much better in the labor market if they had completed high-level math and science courses; earned average to above average grades; completed multiple vocational courses focusing on a specific labor market area (occupational concentration); and obtained a professional certification or license.

While each of these factors had a positive effect most of the time, they were especially powerful in combination. We coined this winning formula “high credentialed.” Compared to their peers, who lacked any of these characteristics, the high credentialed non-college goers achieved comparable, and sometimes, better employment and social outcomes.

Clearly, this mix of knowledge and job specific skill sets was an effective combination but what wasn’t clear was just how much. In Part II, where we introduced the concept of high credentialed, we’d made no distinction between those who attended a two- or four-year institution (trade schools are not included in this list) or between those who obtained a degree and didn’t. This third and final part of the series does just that.


The lasting and widespread effects of high credentials

Amongst the three college going groups, no one enjoyed a greater likelihood of success than four-year degree holders, pulling in dramatically higher wages and contributing much more to retirement than the average non-college goer by the age of 26.


But those differences shrank when four-year university graduates were compared against non-college goers who fit our high credentialed category. These well-prepared individuals reported similar success in many areas, including job security, supervisory experience and job satisfaction.

What’s more, the head start that high credentials brings appears to have helped graduates no matter where they ended up in life. 

In every category except four-year degree holders, high credentialed high school graduates earned higher wages and benefits and achieved greater job stability and satisfaction than their peers who lacked this preparation.


In fact, high credentials made the biggest impact on non-college goers, who, on average, had the lowest chances of landing full-time employment, making a living wage and receiving medical insurance. With more rigorous and focused high-school courses, however, non-college goers are the greatest beneficiaries of a high credentialed curriculum, attaining greater levels of economic success than even those who went to college but failed to graduate.

 
What educators and policymakers should know

High level math and science courses are not just for college goers

Advanced math and science courses are not just essential for getting into and succeeding in college; they are the most important for non-college goers, who best the average non-college goers by double digits in every category of what we determined to be “success.” 

Vocational training should focus on specific job skills

Completing an assortment of vocational courses does not provide students with the job skills they need to be successful after high school. Vocational courses should focus on a specific labor market area just as selecting a major does in college. 

Vocational courses are not just for non-college goers

Most high school graduates would benefit from completing vocational courses even if they intend on going to college, as nearly half of college goers fail to earn a two- or four-year degree. Without earning a degree, college goers are far less likely to find success—while carrying an increased debt burden—if they hadn’t acquired specific job skills. 

Vocational courses would benefit future college grads, too, as more four-year degree holders are heading back to two-year colleges to obtain more specific job skills.

Helping students map out their future is key to their success

Guidance counselors play a critical role by communicating the varied post-secondary options to middle- and high-school students and helping them stay on track toward meeting their individual goals. 



Jim Hull is the former senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Education. Naomi Dillon is CPE’s managing editor. 

Published: June 2016
Copyright 2016 The Center for Public Education 
High Credentials: A good springboard for all students
  • Completed Algebra 2 as highest math course and Advanced biology as highest science;  
  • Earned a cumulative GPA between 2.51 and 3;
  • Completed an occupational concentration in high school (three or more vocational courses in a specific labor market area); and 
  • Earned a professional certification or license.

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