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Graduation Special -- What's an Education Really Worth?

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It's Commencement Season! Across America young people are sweltering in polyester robes as they celebrate the completion of their high school or college careers. Millions of American families are beaming with pride as the next generation tosses its caps in the air and completes this rite of passage.

There's only one problem: there's not enough of these graduates to go around.

Plain and simple, we're not graduating enough young people from high school and college in the United States. Barely two-thirds of today's high school students will graduate on time. With the average high school dropout's annual earnings being only about 40 percent of those of a college graduate, this failure has profound consequences for the rest of one's entire life.

The pipeline to a college degree is not much better. Today, roughly 39 percent of American adults hold two- or four-year degrees -- a rate that has been stagnant for four decades. The U.S. has fallen from being number one in the world in college gradation rates in the 1960s to not even making the top 10 today. Given that folks with bachelor's degrees earn two-thirds more annually than those with high school diplomas, a college degree is increasingly the price of admission to the middle class in America.

As disturbing as these facts are in the aggregate, an even more alarming picture emerges when we disaggregate them by economic status. Our education system is a prime reason that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Only one in 10 youth from low-income families go on to graduate from a four-year college, compared with over a quarter (28 percent) of youth from middle-income families and half of youth from high-income families.

It's hard to overstate the importance of education when it comes to the issues of economic opportunity and social mobility addressed by Be The Change's Opportunity Nation campaign. A Harvard University study has found that, over the past third of a century, all of the net job growth in America has been generated by positions that require at least some post-secondary education. People without postsecondary credentials or -- even worse -- a high school diploma are destined to be unable to get the "good jobs" of the 21st century. Given the importance of education to economic success, these disparities doom a whole community of Americans to lower economic status.

This is not acceptable in the Land of Opportunity. For the post World-War II "Greatest" and "Baby Boomer" generations, a well-funded and highly functional K-12 education system, coupled with a path to higher education paved by the GI Bill and state universities that were properly resourced, laid the foundation for America having a sizable middle class and a standard of living that was the envy of the world. If we continue to allow the path to educational achievement to become more and more narrow -- especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder -- we are destined to become a society with a small elite and an impoverished majority.

We've simply got to help more people graduate from high school and college or else the future shape of American society will look very different than it does today, and not in a good way. It's that simple.