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The Path Least Taken II: At a Glance

Much is known about the tools high school graduates need to do well in college (Adelman, 1999 and 2006; Hull, 2010; Klepfer & Hull, 2012). We know much less about the impact of high school on career readiness, however. This study looks at the credentials and high school experiences of non-college going high school graduates in an attempt to identify those factors that relate to success after school in both work and life. 

“Credentials” that matter most for non-college goers:
  • 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.
In Part 1 of the Path Least Taken we compared the characteristics of non-college going 2004 graduates to their college going peers. The first finding was that just 12 percent of high school graduates had not enrolled in college by age 26. Even then, nearly a third of these non-college enrollees reported that they still expected to attend college sometime in the future. We also found that non-college enrollees are distinctly different from their college going classmates. In high school, for example, they had typically earned lower grades, took fewer academic courses, and did less homework than the college goers. 

In this second study in the series, we explore various job-related and social outcomes of the non-college goers by age 26, and relate these to the preparation they had in school in order to gain insights into what defines “career readiness” for high school graduates.

Advanced courses, occupational focus make a difference

In general, we found that what students do in high school can be as important for non-college goers as it is for college goers:

  • At age 26, college goers, on average, are more likely than non-college goers to have a good job and engage in society. But a more rigorous high school preparation that includes high-level math and vocational courses in an occupational concentration improves those chances considerably for non-college goers. Add professional certification to the mix and non-college goers are more likely to be employed and earn good wages than the average college-goer, and they are as likely to vote. 
  • The positive impact of high-level courses and certificates is evident in non-college goers of all racial groups, but the benefits are not equally shared. Black non-college goers are less likely to be employed or earn the same wages as their similarly credentialed Hispanic and white peers. At the same time, better preparation has a greater impact on black graduates than on whites and Hispanics, showing that higher credentials can be an important factor in narrowing the employment and wage gap. 
  • Interestingly, black non-college goers are much more likely to vote and volunteer than similarly prepared white and Hispanic non-college enrollees as well as the average college enrollee.  

The factors identified in this report can only scratch the surface of the knowledge and skills non-college enrollees need to increase their chances of getting a good job after high school. There are, of course, innumerable experiences that ultimately impact individuals’ career choices and successes. Nonetheless, this report should provide valuable information about the effect of students’ high school preparation on equipping graduates to be productive workers and engaged members of the community – lessons that we believe should benefit non-college goers and college-goers alike.  

Questions for school leaders

Where do our graduates go after high school?
  • How many high school graduates in our district go immediately to college? How many go to college within two years? More than two years?
  • Where are our graduates who don’t go to college? How many are working? 
  • Are there differences in college-going or working by student group based on race, ethnicity, family income, home language or special needs?
Do we have enough trained counselors or mentors to help students with goal-setting?
  • Are all students well informed about the range of post-graduation options, including college, training and financial aid? 
  • Are students required to develop personal plans with the guidance of a counselor or mentor that includes a schedule for acquiring the credits needed to fulfill the plan?
  • Does every student have a mentor to make sure they stay on track toward meeting their goals and receive appropriate support as needed?
What opportunities do our high schools provide for career readiness?
  • Do graduation requirements include Algebra 2 or its equivalent? Three courses of high-level science? Do we provide sufficient support for struggling students in these subjects?
  • Do our high schools provide a variety of vocational programs? Do they include opportunities to complete at least three courses in a single occupational concentration? Do these programs lead to a professional certification/license?
  • Are there opportunities in our community for intern programs or business partnerships to help equip all students for the workplace?

Jim Hull is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Public Education. 

Published: July 2015
Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Education

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