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Building a Grad Nation

by John Bridgeland

Every day, researchers, policymakers, teachers, counselors, and business leaders continue to make the case for the importance of earning a high school diploma and obtaining some post-secondary study.

For young adults who drop out of high school, their options and future earning potential become extremely limited. Sadly, 1-in-6 young adults are completely isolated from school and work – and are less likely to become the independent, productive citizens needed to help our nation grow.

Thus, we have set our sights on building a “Grad Nation” – to have a national high school graduation rate of 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and the highest college attainment rates in the world. But as we know, changes to our education system will take the collaboration of many to achieve these shared goals.

Earlier this month, I participated in the national Building a Grad Nation Summit in Washington DC, exploring solutions and strategies for reducing the dropout rate with 1,000 other education leaders in the field. There, we announced some positive news from the latest annual Building a Grad Nation Report: Our national graduation rate is improving – from 72 percent in 2001 to 75.5 percent in 2009. Twelve states made significant progress in boosting high school graduation rates, with Tennessee and New York leading the nation with double-digit gains in the last decade.

While this improvement is steady, what does it mean for our country and economy? Higher graduation rates mean higher individual incomes, increased economic growth, and less use of government resources and social services.

Higher graduation rates mean more opportunities to realize the potential of young people. In fact, if we had already reached the President's goal of a 90 percent graduation rate, 580,000 additional students would have graduated in the Class of 2011, increasing the GDP by $6.6 billion and generating $1.8 billion in additional revenue as a result of increased economic activity. In tough fiscal times, the country could use the boost.

Two Out of Five Opportunity Youth are High School Dropouts

Through our work with the White House Council of Community Solutions, we know that 2-in-5 “Opportunity Youth” – those ages 16-24 who are out of school and work – are high school dropouts, making them more likely than their peers to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, or single parents with children who also drop out.

Knowing these statistics makes the case even more compelling to help young adults earn their high school degree. It often seems like a daunting job, requiring more resources than there are available.

But as schools in Nashville, TN, can attest, resources don't always lead to impact. In 2002, Nashville was on the brink of failure – with 175 separate nonprofits investing human and monetary support to improve the schools, yet with no shared goals and little net gain to show for their efforts. It took the whole community working toward a shared goal to create change.

Shared Goals Create Incredible Impact in Nashville

Change in Nashville came through a community collaborative, improving graduation rates by 20 percent since 2002 and decreasing truancy rates by 30-40 percent. Key elements to the significant turnaround were a shared vision and buy-in throughout the community: from government leaders to businesses to schools and community members.

The vision was held together by a formal blueprint called the Child and Youth Master Plan, which was drafted with community input. The plan was supported by Alignment Nashville, a formal collaborative with dedicated staff and empowered committees focused on specific metrics and held accountable to the operating board.

We must do all in our power to grow our economy and strengthen our communities to build a stronger America. How can you help your community experience success like Nashville? The White House Council for Community Solutions has developed resources to help your community better collaborate and help youth succeed, including a community collaborative toolbox, white paper, and case studies for help and ideas. Together, we can help more young people stay on track to graduate from high school, earn a post-secondary credential, and realize their dreams.

John Bridgeland is the Chief Executive Officer of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington, DC, that recently produced research for Building a Grad Nation and Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America's Forgotten Youth.

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