If states want to make it easier for students to reach the middle class, they should follow Louisiana’s lead when it comes to the expectations for earning a high school diploma.
As a recent report by the Center for American Progress shows, Louisiana is one of just four states where the coursework requirements to graduate high school match the coursework required to for college eligibility. What’s more, Louisiana is one of only two states where the coursework requirements include high-level science and math, three years of study in social science, and two years of a single foreign language — the same coursework that most public universities require.
The implications are clear. States need to make two changes to their graduation requirements: strengthen them and ensure they meet what’s required for public university admissions.
In over 40 states, students can complete all the coursework required for a diploma and still be ineligible to apply for admission to their public university. States often do not require enough foreign-language instruction, high-level math and science, or, to a somewhat lesser degree, courses like business, communications, art, and technology that could provide students with a more well-rounded education.
While some states may fear the impact that tougher graduation requirements may have on graduation rates, consider the following: In Louisiana alone, about one-third of the state’s current jobs require less than a college education, but these jobs earn a median annual wage of $19,000 — $2,000 less than what a single adult needs to live on in the state. Over the last decade, Louisiana has also seen an 8 percent increase in jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields. Just under 40 percent of these are for engineers and technicians. Louisianans can’t afford not to receive advanced training after high school.
These economic trends mirror national statistics: 99 percent of the jobs created following the 2008 recession went to workers with at least some college experience.
To be sure, postsecondary education need not take place at a traditional brick-and-mortar college and need not result in a four-year degree. But, without at least some advanced training, American workers will find the job market increasingly unfavorable and inequality will continue to rise. Research shows even some college education makes a difference in job eligibility and lifetime earnings.
To excel in these jobs, students need much more than basic academic skills; they must master four types of readiness: work, job, career, and college. Work readiness means that students can meet the basic expectations of the workplace like arriving on time, following through on tasks, and exhibiting adequate verbal and written communication skills. Job readiness means that students have the appropriate technical knowledge for an entry-level job in a given field. Career and technical education programs can provide this specific knowledge. Being career-ready means that students know how to acquire the higher-level knowledge and skills needed to advance in a field. Finally, being college-ready means that students know how to apply for and secure funding for college, and are ready to succeed in entry-level courses. This type of mastery requires deep and extensive study.
That’s why in Louisiana, every student must take a “college-ready” course sequence in high school in order to graduate. The sequence includes four years of English, high-level math and science, and social studies; plus two years of foreign language. Students must also take art, health, and electives. Taken together, these comprise the strongest diploma requirements in the country. Moreover, students wanting to enter the workforce sooner can choose to take an additional “career-ready” course sequence that results in industry-valued credentials like technical certificates.
Given the importance of a college education, states must ensure that high school graduates are prepared for college or advanced career training. High school coursework plays a critical role in this preparation. States should address their high school graduation requirements and align them with public university admissions requirements so that no students are left unprepared for their next academic step.
Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress. Kira Orange Jones is a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.