Closing graduation gap for minority students: Putting a price tag on a high school diploma


There’s a dollars and cents argument for graduating more students from America’s high schools and for closing the graduation gap between white and non-white students, both here in the Twin Cities area and across the nation, a new study by the Alliance for Excellent Education shows. 

One education proponent goes so far as to suggest “the best economic stimulus package is a high school diploma.”

That graduation gap is particularly alarming given that minority birth rates are increasing, added Bob Wise, president of the Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has long worked to improve America’s high schools.


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“Census projections indicate that America will become a minority-majority country by the middle of the century,” said Wise, a former governor of West Virginia, “but a recent report found that minorities accounted for nearly 49 percent of U.S. births in the year ending July 1, 2009.

“According to our report, if the nation’s education system does not start serving students of color better today, all Americans will feel the difference in their wallets” in coming years, he said.

Bob WiseBob Wise

“That means that for all of us, the best economic stimulus package is a high school diploma,” said Wise, a former Democratic congressman, adding there is also a “…moral imperative to provide every student with an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream….”

Completed in partnership with Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., “The Economic Benefits of Reducing the Dropout Rate Among Students of Color in the Nation’s Forty-Five Largest Metropolitan Areas” claims that if even half the nation’s 600,000 high-school dropouts from the class of 2008 had graduated, that diploma would translate into $2.3 billion in increased earnings in an average year.

Those graduates would then turn around and invest or spend more on homes, cars and other products that would lead to $249.7 million in increased tax revenue and 17,450 more jobs, according to the study.

Nationally, the high school graduation rates for African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians stands at about 50 percent compared to about 70 percent for their white peers, according to the Alliance. In the Twin Cities, minority dropouts figure at about 29 percent of the total 10,300 students who dropped out of the class of 2008.

Graduating even half the dropouts would “likely produce” a better standard of living and mean that many would continue their studies, the study reports.

For those Minnesotans of color, according to the Alliance, it figures out to these increased earnings in “an average year”: $8.9 million for African-Americans, $7.3 million for Latinos, $1.1 million for American Indians and $5.5 million for Asian Americans.

Find other details of the economic ripple effect of Minnesota graduates here. [PDF]

The study brought local comment. 

DFL State Rep. Carlos Mariani, St. Paul, executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Inc., questioned the growing number of people framing education in terms of economics. “Every person has value whether you can quantify it …or not,” he said. How can one quantify human potential, he asked.

Rep. Carlos MarianiRep. Carlos Mariani

Others stressed the need for more than a high school diploma for 21st century students.

“The Alliance’s case is compelling and strong and buttressed by literally scores of other reports and research over many decades, but we would respectfully up the ante and say that we really have to look beyond high school now and focus on higher-ed attainment,” said Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank in the Twin Cities.

Growth & Justice last year recommended that the state of Minnesota set a goal of increasing by 50 percent the rate of students finishing some type of post-secondary education by the year 2020 and has a history of pointing out the cost benefits of higher graduation rates. 

The Obama administration also advocates post-high school education for young people. 

At a meeting in Minneapolis with K-12 and college leaders in early July, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: 

“K-12 schools, especially high schools, will have to be transformed from institutions that concentrate primarily on getting students a diploma to institutions that are all about preparing students for careers and college-and without the need for remediation.”

Twin Cities educational consultant Wynfred Russell, who came to the United States as a refugee from the Ivory Coast in 1992, called the study “really telling.”

“We have been saying this all along, to those who have an interest in this area, that there is a correlation between a school dropout and several other socio-economic factors,” Russell said. Education, he said, is a “benefit not only for the individual student but for all of us in larger society, particularly in communities of color.

“If we follow the numbers… you see that the students that are most at risk are students of color…largely from African American households, Native American households and African immigrant households. Ultimately it is impacting all of Minnesota,” he said.

Community leaders, parents and guardians need to work with the schools for student success, said Russell, who is running for a seat on the Brooklyn Park City Council.

Wynfred RussellWynfred Russell

“If our students are not graduating from high school or not graduating from high school on time, or performing poorly in high school or failing out of college or not able to enter college, that has a devastating effect throughout the system,” Russell said. 

A 2008 Growth & Justice report quoted researchers who tallied the economic benefits of a high school diploma. According to academics Henry M. Levin and Clive R. Belfield, a Minnesotan with a high school diploma gains $475,900 in extra earnings over a lifetime, compared to a high school dropout. Further, the state of Minnesota gains more than $1 million “from individual and taxpayer benefits plus lower crime victimization and faster economic growth.”

This article is made possible in part by the Don W. Taylor Fund of  The Minneapolis Foundation.