In April, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the high school graduation rate in the United States has reached its highest point in history. 80% of the nation's students received a high school diploma in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Duncan called the news a "profound milestone" during a speech he gave before the America's Promise Alliance, and he recognized the teachers, families, and students who made it possible.1

California's graduation rate increased right along with the national average, according to the California Department of Education.2 For four consecutive years, the high school dropout rate has declined-80.2 percent of students who entered high school in 2009-10 graduated in 2013 with their class, according to an April 2013 news release by Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Compared to the 2011-12 dropout rate, the most recent numbers also showed a 1.5 percent drop in students who left high school.

Enthusiasm over increased graduation rates has spread east toward Texas as well.3 The Texas Education Agency recently reported that 88 percent of high school students graduated in 2013 within four years, an increase from the 87.7 percent rate the previous year, according to Education Commissioner Michael Williams. These record-breaking high school graduation rates had been continuously increasing for six consecutive years, too.

The spirit of high school graduation is universally high, but as more students graduate, what will their next step be? And what about the remaining students, the ones who drop out?

In-Demand Skilled-Trade Jobs

Duncan said earning a high school diploma used to be the "finish line," The Washington Post reports, but for today's graduates, it's "just a beginning." College enrollment and graduation is just as crucial, especially in light of the highly understaffed skilled-trades job market. A high school diploma can serve as a stepping stone toward higher education at two or four-year schools. Along with the academic victories of nationwide high school graduation rates, the job market for trained workers in grey-collar or skilled-trades professions is similarly optimistic.   

Jobs in manufacturing and construction, including welders, electricians, and machinists, are in dire need of skilled labor pools to fill open positions, according to a ManpowerGroup report.4 Because of an aging skilled-trades labor force (age 45 and older) and the widespread belief that high school graduates should attend a traditional four-year college (as opposed to a vocational school), the grey-collar workforce faces a shortage of skills-trained workers and talent.

Among the 21 skilled-trades professions, the electrical and electronics repairers group is the oldest-39 percent of the jobs employ workers 55 years old and older, and 72 percent are 45 years old and older. Production occupations (welders, industrial machinery mechanics, and brazing machine setters) also face impending retirements and a surge of employment vacancies. EMSI research found that job opportunities in these types of trades grew by 6.2 percent between 2010 to 2012-namely, the electrician field offered more than 600,000 U.S. jobs and machinists made up an estimated 394,523 jobs in 2012.

Equipped with a diploma and fueled by fresh momentum to continue their education, high school graduates can embark on specialized workforce training at a two-year career college with the promise of immediate employment. Certified graduates with specialized workforce knowledge and skills become highly appealing job candidates.

But how can we address the academic crisis of graduation gaps, dropouts and struggling non-traditional learners? How can academic communities serve these students and prepare them to be potential, appealing job candidates as well?

Crusade for the Non-Traditional Student

Despite increasing high school graduation rates, disparities persist. More than half of schools with high dropout rates are located in urban areas. While the national average graduation rate is 80 percent, low-income students graduate between a range of 58 to 85 percent. This leads to a larger problem of significantly decreasing the overall graduation rate for schools in these locations.4

Minorities and low-income families, along with students who have special needs or are ESL, are economically, emotionally, and mentally burdened by "poverty and misery" which, according to Duncan, significantly reduces their chances of graduating high school. With such bleak conditions immobilizing young people, their outlook on the future is despairing and paralyzing. Responsibility falls on educators and institutions to enlighten young people, influence their perspectives, and show how education is a stepping stone toward a career and a better life.

Provide students who did not complete high school with a high school completion alternative. Not only can a completion program graduate students, it motivates and instills self-confidence to propel them forward. By graduating high school students, academic institutions excite students and launch them on an educational and professional career path where the aforementioned grey-collar opportunities exist-but it all starts with a diploma.

High School Completion Solutions

San Antonio employed various initiatives to help remediate the underperforming inner city school district-initiatives such as Teach for America, anti-dropout programs, on-campus counseling, alternative school campuses with customized class schedules, home visits, and tending to middle schoolers who are at risk for dropping out down the line. It worked. Last fall, San Antonio's largest inner-city school district projected that nine out of 10 seniors will graduate within the academic year.5

Polk County, Florida, experienced a surge in high school graduation rates after adopting the Penn Foster Dropout Retrieval Program. In summer 2014, the partnership helped 214 students graduate high school. The flexible and affordable blended learning model of in-classroom and online learning helped students earn their diplomas independently and at their own pace.6 Blended education facilitates tailored learning processes to meet individual student needs. The outcome? More than 20 schools implemented the program starting in 2007, and Polk County has since graduated more than 500 students who earned either a Penn Foster or Polk County High School diploma.7

The Institute of Technology (IOT) also increased the local number of high school graduates when it adopted the Penn Foster high school completion program in January. Within five months, IOT enrolled 43 students, and 28 former high school dropouts became high school graduates. Denise Doyle, IOT and Penn Foster program administrator, added that three to four students were expected to graduate within the following weeks. At the time, four graduates enrolled in city college, and 11 moved forward with the Institute of Technology, a career-focused and training college offering technical programs in Allied Health professions, culinary arts, HVAC, and criminal justice.

A high school diploma signifies a goal achieved. It inspires student success, self-confidence and a revitalized outlook on educational and career possibilities. Create a strong connection between students and education, and use that connection to influence students' thoughts about their futures, change their perception about gainful employment, and help them go after promising careers. And grey-collar jobs in the skills-trade industry show tremendous employment opportunity and growth.

From high school completion to college enrollment, and from post-secondary graduation to entering the workforce, the remaining 20 percent of our nation's non-traditional learners and dropouts can indeed embark upon opportunities and achieve their academic and professional goals. We celebrate with our nation's climbing high school graduation rates, but the population of non-traditional students without an education can't be neglected either-and the first step to revitalize this group is to extend unconditional professional support and vehemently deploy effective high school completion initiatives.

Resources: (1) National High School Graduation Rates at Historic High, But Disparities Still Exist; (2) State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces High School Graduation Rate Tops 80 Percent; (3) Texas Posts Top High School Graduation Rates, Again; (4) Building a Grad Nation; (5) Inner City School Success: San Antonio's Best-Kept Secret; (6) Suits & Gowns Partner to Change Lives in Florida(7) Penn Foster Debuts Dropout Retrieval Solution at National Dropout Prevention Conference