High School Grads: Then & Now

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Some years ago I had the opportunity to meet with the now former-CEO of a publicly traded technology company. He told me his story and it was fascinating.

It turns out that this CEO had only just graduated from high school when he started working at the company. As I recall, he decided he needed to do something with his life and so he applied for a job at the town’s big company, and received an invitation for an interview. Part of the interview process included a test of his personality and intelligence. He left thinking he didn’t have a chance, but was invited back for another round. When the process was completed, he was offered a job to fix the shipping office. It wasn’t operating efficiently and management wanted things improved. He was given a few weeks to do the job and actually accomplished it. Having achieved his goal, he was moved to another area of the company to fix it. And so his career went until he became CEO.

I asked him if it would be possible for a kid to do that today.

He replied sadly, “No, it’s not the same now. Education has changed and we can’t test people like that. There are too many rules.”

Two weeks ago my stepfather passed away. He was 71. As my mother and I talked about him and what he accomplished in life, she reminded me that he only had a high school degree. Yet he was able to go from high school to work for Andersen Windows. There, through hard work and learning on the job, he was able to climb the ranks and eventually became a key purchasing agent of raw materials needed to make the paint, glass, sealants, and everything else that goes into the production of doors and windows. Again, he only had a high school degree.

Three weeks ago I was with a suburban mother and we were discussing education. She shared how hard she and her husband work to ensure that their kids get a good education. She then shared how worried she is about the world her children will be living in because she thinks too many kids these days aren’t getting a good education.

She also told me that she runs her own company, for which they hire a lot of customer service representatives. Traditionally, the job has only required a high school degree. As she explained, it’s a fairly easy job that only requires basic skills. In her words, “They’re basic entry-level positions BUT,” she then said, “we are finding lately that we can only hire people with a college degree for the positions. We’re using the degree requirement as a way to narrow the pool of applicants to those who can properly spell, write, and communicate with people on the phone. We can’t find people with only a high school degree who can do these things. I worry that they’re being squeezed out of the job market.”

Taken as anecdotes alone, we wouldn’t use these stories to make serious assessments of the state of our education system. But when I consider them in light of the available data, I see an education system that has broken down, that is failing. As a result of this breakdown, I see far too many kids in America and Minnesota whose futures are quite bleak.

Across America, 20% or more of high school seniors fail to graduate each year. The number is the same for Minnesota. Worse, according to the Department of Education, 19% of high school graduates – high school graduates! – are considered functionally illiterate. Here in the state of Minnesota, we know that for two years in a row less than 60% of ALL students in the state are reading at grade level, and that 40% of high school graduates who go on to state colleges need remedial education.

Getting back to the experiences I shared with you earlier. How many of us know older high school graduates who can read and write well, know their history, and can do math? Many of us know quite a few older Americans who have lead successful lives equipped with just a high school degree and the will to do well. Today, though, what do employers consider high school graduates capable of doing? Realistically, what job would you hire a high school graduate to perform? Would it be the kind of job that a person could grow in and eventually use to provide a good life for his or her family?

Probably not.

Something has happened. Are most of today’s jobs really beyond the ability of a person holding only a high school diploma? Given the number of individuals who have done well in life and who made today’s economy possible with only a high school degree, it’s hard for me to believe that jobs suddenly are so much more difficult or so specialized. Indeed, a recent study revealed that, excluding individuals with graduate degrees, only 27% of college graduates are working in fields related to their majors.

Is it possible, instead, that today’s education system has broken down, and that a high school degree doesn’t necessarily mean that a person can read well, write well, reason well, and do math? If so, it’s time to rethink the system.

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