Award three high school diplomas: "basic," "career-ready," and "university-ready"

Joanne Jacobs

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

Years ago, I was asked to speak to school officials and parents who were rethinking their district’s graduation requirements. They wanted outside opinion on what should be required.

I suggested they talk to employers who hired high school graduates and to community college instructors. What knowledge and skills did an eighteen-year-old need to qualify for an entry-level job and pass an entry-level class? That should be the requirement.

The district was trying to focus on the “whole child” and was considering adding a requirement covering emotional health, good citizenship, love of learning—stuff like that. An earnest man asked what I thought.

“Imagine a student who’s a miserable human being,” I said. “He hates school, doesn’t get along with people, isn’t a nice guy, but he’s passes all his classes with A’s. Now imagine denying him a diploma.”

A shudder went through the audience.

“You wouldn’t do that,” I said. “So don’t require it.”

That’s still my advice. Don’t require the impossible—unless you’re prepared for a lot of cheating.

These days, all high-school graduates are supposed to be ready for college. Most enroll. The unprepared drop out quickly.

Many high schools are pushing up graduation rates by making it easy—very easy—for students who’ve failed classes to make up credits. Most exit exams, which typically ensured graduates had mastered eighth-grade skills, have been dropped. The scandal in Washington, D.C., which was handing diplomas to no-show, no-learn twelfth graders, is not unique.

If we want nearly everyone—or everyone who shows up and makes an effort—to get a high school diploma, not just a “certificate of completion,” then the requirements must be lowered to the bare minimum. Community college leaders say there’s some hope of success for students who show up with seventh-grade skills or better. Perhaps that’s the minimum for a “basic” diploma that would signify the student showed up, followed the rules, and learned something. Employers like people who show up and follow rules, which is why traditionally they’ve preferred high school graduates to GED earners.

Schools should make it clear to students that higher-level diplomas have higher payoffs. I envision a “career-readiness” diploma for students aiming for on-the-job or community college–based vocational programs. It might include certifications in specific job skills, but the key is to teach students the academic skills they’ll need to learn in the future. Some might go on to earn a four-year degree. Others will find they don’t need or want it.

For those aiming for a bachelor’s degree or higher, schools should offer a rigorous “honors” or “university-ready” diploma that truly signifies preparation for college-level academic work.

I’d also like to see a very strong effort to identify students who are falling behind in elementary and middle school, figure out why they’re struggling and give them help to get on a career-ready or university-ready track before it’s too late.

We expect high schools to perform miracles and then, when that doesn’t happen, we expect colleges to perform miracles. Let’s get real.

Joanne Jacobs, a freelance education writer, blogs at