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In the Nation's Interest

Trustee Jon Whitmore: Educational Development is Economic Development

This month, more than three million students will graduate from high schools across the United States. At ACT, we are proud to note that more than half these students will be graduating having taken the ACT college readiness assessment, so we know more than most about where they’ve been—and about where they’re going.

For about 70 percent of high school graduates, the next stage in life is college. As you might expect, what happens in high school makes a big difference in how well students proceed on the path toward academic and ultimately economic success.

In Part 3 of our ACT College Choice Report, which analyzes data from the US high school class of 2012, we found that as ACT scores increase, college dropout rates decrease. Perhaps more surprisingly, we also found that among students with similar test scores, those with the highest educational aspirations were also more likely to stay the course in terms of college enrollment.

For example, 47 percent of students with ACT scores from 1 to 15 (on the low end) and long-term goals of less than a bachelor’s degree dropped out before their second years in college. For students with same academic goals but scores from 24 and 27 (better than average, but not “off the charts”), only 24 percent dropped out.

In other words, raising scores from struggling to solid cut the college dropout rate in half.

For students with top scores (33 to 36), the odds of dropping out plummet to 6 percent for those hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree, and 5 percent for those planning on a graduate degree.

Those figures may not surprise you, but how about this? For students with scores of 1 to 15 (again, on the low end), but a goal of a graduate degree, only 29 percent drop out—too high, but a full third lower than the 47 percent rate for students with similar scores but lower aspirations.

Wayne Camara, ACT’s senior vice president for research, notes that “Our findings reinforce the importance of strong academic preparation and high aspirations in college success. We must work harder to ensure that all students have access to a quality education and effective college guidance assistance, particularly those at-risk, underserved students who tend to be the most vulnerable.”

Starting college, but not finishing it, is expensive for everyone. On an individual level, tuition dollars that do not result in degrees tend to result in more student debt without corresponding increases in income, resulting in more obstacles to success. For our country, hundreds of thousands of students falling short of their potential, for whatever reason, represent a tremendous opportunity cost.

As I need to remind no one in the Committee for Economic Development, no society can sustain itself as a world leader if it persists in leaving talent on the table.

As we celebrate high school graduation ceremonies across our country, we should also remember that we call it “commencement season” for a reason.

Each of our high school graduates is commencing on the next stage in his or her life. Multiply each of these new beginnings by more than three million, and it’s clear that not only are these graduates’ lives starting anew, but that our country’s economic future is being reborn.

Jon Whitmore is CEO of ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success." Follow Jon Whitmore on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Trustee blogs are the views of an individual trustee and not the official policy of CED.