Public High School On-Time Graduation Rate Continues to Outperform

by Dr. Patrick Jones

For many area residents, June means graduation – from a college, a university, or from one school to another within the K-12 system. This indicator spotlights the collective success of local public-school districts with the graduation from high school. 

Securing a high school diploma marks a milestone in a person’s life. It signifies that a student has done the requisite learning to help prepare them for a career, obligations as a citizen (if they are citizens), and for general skills to help them meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. 

A high school degree is also a requisite step toward better earnings. According to recent research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the premium of a high school diploma over none, in weekly earnings, is at least $170, or about $9,000/year. 

Further, a diploma makes a difference whether you’re employed or not. Data from April of this year from the U.S. Census (via the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank), reveal a national unemployment rate for young workers (25-34) at 9.8% for people with less than a high school diploma. The rate for those with a high school degree but no college? 5%. 

School districts and the business community care, too. For the school districts, the share of their students who receive a high school diploma is a measure of success. For area employers, the quality of the workforce matters. While there are many attributes of a quality worker – ability to work in teams, attitude, punctuality – a key is how much they know. 

Given the recent high school graduation rates among the districts in Chelan and Douglas Counties, nearly all should be happy. Trends indicator 3.1.6 reveals why. This indicator tracks the ratio of high school graduates in a cohort that starts in 9th grade, changing its numbers only via new entrants and students who transfer, to those who graduate four years later.  

For last year’s graduating class, the two-county, public school average was 89%. This is the second-highest rate on record and represents a significant increase from a decade ago. The class of 2014 yielded a rate of 74%. Notably, the local rate is now a few percentage points higher than the state average (84%).  

The Trends allows further detail by geography for some indicators. In this case, one can drill down to examine the averages in each county by clicking on the radio button in the upper right corner of the graph. One can quickly see that there has recently been virtually no difference between the average of the school districts, county vs. county.  There is, however, some difference between the Eastmont and Wenatchee Districts, where recently the on-time graduation rate was 91% vs. 86%, respectively. Data for all other districts can be found in the “Download Data” tab. 

One hopes that these relatively high graduation rates lead to high rates of some post-secondary education or training. The economic benefits of a further education are pronounced.  The national 2022 premium in weekly wages of someone with some college but no degree, say a certificate or two, was over $80; the difference in the national unemployment rate for the same group vs. a high school degree only:  4.4% vs. 5.0%. 

The premia grow the further one pursues higher education. The weekly premium for a associates degree holder versus a high school diploma only was $150 in 2022. The difference in the national unemployment rate for the two categories:  2.8% vs. 5.0%. 

And then there are the advantages accruing to securing a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2022, weekly earnings, nationally, for a bachelor’s degree holder was $1,432 vs. $853 for a high school degree.  The recent unemployment rate for young adults (25-34) with a bachelor’s degree was 2.1% versus a high school diploma of 5.0.% 

It is good to keep in mind that the economic results for those with some higher education are averages. Returns within the field of bachelor’s degrees, for example, vary, with STEM and health science degree holders earning significantly above the average. 

Yet, if the area’s recent graduating students resemble their state peers, they may not be on track to enjoy these future rewards. For the most recent graduating class statewide, that of 2021, only half were enrolled in a non-for-profit higher education institution within a year. This marks a sharp fall from the share in 2019:  60%. The drop has occurred for students attending both 2- and 4-year institutions, but especially at the former. Chalk up part of the overall decline to a strong economy, to a concern about an ROI to student debt, and to an attitudinal shift during the pandemic.  

Whatever the reason, let us hope that paths to some form of post-secondary education will carry more students than recently. It is in the interest of both high school graduates and the organizations that will eventually employ them.