High School Grads Face a Steep Climb to Success

Tamara Draut

All across the country this week, graduation ceremonies will strive to provide America’s newest high school and college graduates with inspirational messages about perseverance, hope and ambition. It’s a message that is getting harder to say with a straight face, particularly in the high school auditoriums where many students will not be heading off to four-year colleges in the fall.

A new report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development a t Rutgers University captures the struggles facing this much overlooked group of young people. Surveying high school graduates from the classes of 2006 to 2011 who weren’t enrolled in college full-time, the study found that only 3 in 10 high school graduates were employed full-time.  For young high school grads who had the bad luck of graduating in the dismal recession economy, only 16 percent had full-time jobs. It’s not for lack of trying, or wanting a 40-hour work week. Less than 1 in 10 recent high school grads are working part-time out of choice—the rest are unemployed or trying to move from a part-time to a full-time job.

The majority of students from the high school class of 2012 will face a difficult climb ahead. Seven out of 10 will head off to some type of college—with about half of them going to 4-year colleges and the other half going to 2-year colleges. No matter their path, college costs will exert a heavy toll on their ability to stay in school. State cuts to higher ed budgets have caused tuition to more than double in one generation at 4-year colleges, while tuition at community colleges has increased 71 percent. With their whole lives in front of them, most of the high school class of 2012 will likely drop-out before completing any type of degree—despite their expressed desire to finish, and their awareness that life in today’s labor market is most punishing for those lacking college diplomas.

They’ll be stuck in jobs where they’ll earn less than their parents, and have a harder time hanging on to their jobs or securing just one full-time job. In 2010, young men with only high school degrees earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by their dads at that age in 1980, and young women earn 91 cents for every dollar earned by their moms.

The stultifying experience of being unable to stay in college or find a decent job will lead to widespread pessimism about their future, and as the survey from Rutgers indicates, the shift from youthful exuberance to dashed dreams will come before they reach their 25th birthday. It’s a message no valedictorian would ever deliver at commencement.