TPC Blog What's a Diploma Worth?

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If you’ve ever seen Disney’s The Incredibles you might remember this exchange:

Helen Parr:  “Everyone’s special, Dash.”

Dash Parr:  “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

Dash makes a good point (and one I’m surprised Disney was willing to express). Dash’s observation is why, while I enjoy a good Marvel origin movie, I’m not a fan of the Avengers. No character stands out. Every character can dish it out, take it, and a lot of things explode. When everyone on the screen is a superhero, is anyone really a superhero? Is everyone reduced to a normal hero? Isn’t “normal hero,” an oxymoron? If 9 out of 10 characters have superpowers then superpowers are the status quo. They aren’t even as super as real-world first responders (who make up far less than 90% of the population). 

According to historical data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) the high school graduation rate in the United States was 41% in 1960. At that time a high school diploma was truly a credential that set one apart from their peers since less than half of Americans possessed one. However, by the end of the 1960s high school graduation had skyrocketed to 75% and according to the U.S. Census Bureau 88.8% of Americans held a high school diploma as of 2020. 

Now, whether you’re someone who believes that graduation number is still too low or someone who believes it’s artificially inflated - or maybe you believe both are true at the same time - the fact is that having a high school diploma doesn’t give a young person the leg up that it used to. In fact, the Census Bureau reports that (as of 2020) 36% of Americans over age 25 have a bachelors degree. That number sounds awfully close to the 1960 high school graduation rate - which would seem to indicate a BA is, for this generation, what a high school diploma was for the Baby Boomers.

With all that said, is there value to a high school diploma? Well, sure. Rather than a credential, it’s evolved into a prerequisite for participating in many social arenas the way a driver’s license is a precondition to operating a vehicle on a public road. While there are still spheres where one may work without a high school diploma, they are fewer and farther between. And aside from the diploma itself, there is certainly still value to the high school experience. Social interaction and competition (athletic or academic) are a couple of easy examples of the benefits of high school attendance. A good high school education will naturally help prepare high achieving students to become the next generation of doctors, lawyers, etc. But for students who aren’t interested in extending their education 4 to 5 years after high school there’s still a way to add a bachelors degree to their resumes much more quickly than those who take the traditional route through college. And they’ll need to if they want to have a competitive advantage going into the work force.