Are High School Diplomas Really a Ticket to College and Work?

An increasing number of headline-grabbing graduation scandals have renewed the public’s interest in how students earn a high school diploma. A recent paper from the Center for American Progress adds to the discussion by examining high school graduation requirements in all fifty states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to determine whether they are aligned with college admissions requirements and a variety of quality indicators.

To complete their state-by-state comparisons, the authors reviewed the state-level high school coursework needed to earn a standard diploma, as well as the admissions requirements for each state’s public university system.[1] These requirements were divided into two categories: years of study within each subject area and the course type and sequence within each subject.

The authors used Carnegie units to measure the years of study required by both high school graduation and college admissions standards; one Carnegie unit is equivalent to 120 hours of class time. States were placed into one of three categories based on their coursework requirements for math, English, science, social studies, foreign language, fine arts, physical education/health, and electives.[2] In states where both the high school and public university systems required the same number of units in each subject, states were deemed meeting expectations. High school requirements that demanded more coursework units in a subject were labeled as exceeding, while high school requirements that demanded fewer units were labeled as not meeting college expectations.

Forty-four states met expectations in English, and three exceeded them. For math, twenty-nine states met expectations, and eleven exceeded them. California was the only state that failed to meet the expectation in both math and English; meanwhile forty states’ diploma requirements met or exceeded college admissions’ coursework standards in both math and English, including Ohio. The least amount of alignment between high school graduation and college requirements occurred in foreign languages, with twenty-three states failing to meet college expectations; twenty-three others met them.

As for the types of classes required, the authors acknowledge that many students are able to choose the courses they take to fulfill graduation requirements. Nevertheless, the authors were able to determine whether the course type and sequence required by high school graduation standards were aligned with college admissions requirements based on course names. States in which students are required to take the same or more rigorous courses than what is required for college admission are considered to be in alignment.[3]

They found that forty-four states met this standard in both social studies and English. Numbers were smaller in math and science—twenty-three and seventeen states, respectively—but in many additional states, students had the option of choosing high school class sequences that were aligned with college expectations in these subjects.

The authors conducted an additional state-by-state comparison of the quality of graduation requirements based on five criteria: requiring three courses in the same CTE field; addressing the need for a well-rounded education via a life-skills course, like financial literacy; complete coursework alignment between high school graduation and college admissions expectations; and requiring the completion of a fifteen-credit college-ready curriculum. No state satisfied all five, but some met a few. Louisiana and Tennessee, for example, require a fifteen-credit college ready curriculum and have completely aligned their diploma requirements with their state’s public university’s coursework admissions standards. Twenty-three states require some element of a well-rounded education. And one state, Delaware, requires its students to complete three credits in the same career and technical education field.

Overall, the authors find a “significant misalignment” between states’ high school and college systems. They also note that, although their analysis attempted to review the quality of graduation requirements, it did not take into account the content taught in each course. Given the mismatch between rising graduation rates and low proficiency rates on assessments like NAEP, the authors acknowledge that “it is almost a guarantee that America’s schools are graduating students who have not learned as much as they should in high school.” 

The paper concludes with a series of recommendations for state policymakers. Unsurprisingly, the first recommendation is to ensure clear alignment between the requirements for high school graduation and college admission. The authors also recommend mandating the completion of the fifteen-credit college-ready coursework that’s required by most public university systems because research shows that students have better life outcomes if they take a rigorous high school course load, regardless of eventual college enrollment.

SOURCE: Laura Jimenez and Scott Sargrad, “Are High School Diplomas Really a Ticket to College and Work? An Audit of State High School Graduation Requirements,” Center for American Progress (April 2018).


[1] The authors selected a single public four-year university located in a major urban center in states with multiple campuses.

[2] Authors excluded four states—Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania—because they require demonstration of mastery in lieu of unit requirements. Thus they compared forty-six states, Puerto Rico, and D.C.

[3] Once again, certain states (Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Vermont) were excluded from this comparison because they require demonstration of mastery in lieu of unit requirements, leaving forty-five states, Puerto Rico, and D.C.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.