The Superior High School Diploma

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What’s Working: The Superior High School Diploma

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.   

When it comes to preparing high school graduates for college, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education says that not all diplomas are created equal—and that one type of diploma in particular stands out above the rest: a college and career ready diploma.

Referred to in the report as CCR diplomas, they require students to complete four years of grade level English and three of advanced math—requirements aligned with most states’ standards of college readiness.

Based on an analysis of Indiana, the report, Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas are Not Created Equal, found that CCR diplomas do a much better job of preparing graduates for college than the general diploma. For example, only 24 percent of Indiana’s high school students who graduated with a general diploma enrolled in college, but 92 percent of those who earned a CCR diploma went on to pursue a college degree.

Furthermore, only 4 percent of the CCR diploma holders needed remedial coursework once they got to college—compared to 59 percent of those who got a general diploma.

A webinar on the findings of the report takes a deep dive into what states can learn from Indiana.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that only 23 states even offer a CCR diploma as an option—and low-income youth and youth of color are significantly less likely to receive them.

A Question of Equity

Though researchers did not delve into why underserved students are less likely to receive CCR diplomas, lead author Dr. Monica Almond said in an email she could make a few guesses based on her experience and other research.

“My best response is that these students were less likely to successfully complete the requisite CCR coursework,” Almond said, adding that she could only make assumptions about the underlying reasons.

Traditionally underserved students, she said, may simply not have been encouraged to enroll in the CCR diploma pathway or have even known it existed. She also said these students often don’t have access to the rigorous coursework required for CCR diplomas.

Overall, traditionally underserved students are less likely to graduate with a CCR diploma than their peers.

“This is a question of equity of access and would need to be uncovered at the local level,” she said.

However, she pointed out that the report demonstrates that students of color are just as likely to earn a CCR diploma as their white peers when states make it the norm for all students.

In Texas, for example, every single student is required to earn a CCR diploma; as a result, 86.1 percent of white students and 85.7 percent of Latino students earned one in 2014—a gap of only 0.4 percentage points.

“It’s very clear that universal enrollment in a college and career ready degree pathway significantly narrows gaps by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, et cetera,” said Dr. Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute in a webinar on the report.

What is less clear, she said, is whether or not CCR diplomas prepare high school graduates for the workforce even if they choose not to go to college.

Why More Data is Needed

While there’s no doubt that college graduates are more likely to have higher-paying jobs, Wilson said CCR diploma pathways shouldn’t neglect the graduates who would rather go straight into the workforce.

“A college degree definitely will yield you greater chances of being employed and higher wages,” she said. But high school graduates should still “have increased productivity to the extent that it gives them the opportunity to earn more than they would otherwise.”

Overall, Wilson said it’s important to gather more data from more states to determine if they truly live up to their name in preparing students for success after high school, “whether that be in college or the workforce.”

“The data available for Indiana is a good starting point,” Wilson said. “But it can further be strengthened if we have more information available.”

Map identifying states with multiple diploma pathways

As mentioned, only 23 states offer a CCR diploma as an option, but only nine keep track of which students are earning which types of diplomas.

The report urges more states to track graduation rates by diploma type, provide publicly available data on which students are earning which diplomas, and report the impact it has on college enrollment and preparedness.

It also argues that the CCR diploma should become the main diploma for all students, and that schools should do more to educate parents and students about their options after high school.

“It’s really a partnership between schools, specifically guidance counselors and parents,” said Indiana’s Department of Education Patrick McAlister in the webinar. “They have to know the options, they have to know the implications of which diploma they choose.”


Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.  

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