What is the Value of a High School Diploma?
Posted on 06/14/2024
A photo of the 2023 grad parade

I recall fairly vividly a faculty of education university lecture I attended many years ago.  In that particular class on a warm spring day in 1996, my professor suggested that the profession of high school teacher would be obsolete in the next 10 to 15 years due to technology and the rapidly changing world of education and work.  Fast forward 28 years, and it is evident that his prediction did not come to pass (thankfully for me). However, the debate around the value of a high school education continues.   

Part of the conversation here in Garden Valley stems from the reality that only 63% of our Grade 8 students self-report that they see themselves completing high school (Our School Survey Results – Fall 2023).  This number improves by Grade 12 with roughly 20% of our students reporting no plans to finish high school, which correlates closely with our actual graduation rate which is just slightly above the provincial average at 82%.  This means that just under 20% of our high school students do not graduate (at least within the four-year timeline of a standard high school education).  When you consider the loss of potential over the years, as this represents many hundreds of young people dropping out, it is nothing less than disheartening.  

Our division believes very strongly in the value of a high school education, so much so, that we have identified improved student attitudes towards high school completion as one of our strategic goals for the next three years.  

Why do we value high school education?  From a purely financial point of view, the lack of a high school education diminishes an individual’s chance for success in the rapidly changing world of work.  We have all heard stories of the high school drop out who becomes a successful entrepreneur and makes millions.  However, the reality is that on average, those who do not finish high school have a much lower chance of achieving career and financial success.  Based on a Conference Board of Canada study, a Canadian without a high school diploma on average makes only 80% of what the typical high school graduate earns.  Over the course of a lifetime, this amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential earnings lost.  Participation in the workforce is also considerably higher for high school graduates as compared to young adults without a high school education.  (Statistics Canada; Young Men and Women Without a High School Diploma, 2017). 

Just as importantly as better job prospects, our high school students learn skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, teamwork, and analysis.  They also learn the importance of citizenship and community engagement.  Perhaps contrary to popular belief, beyond academic content knowledge, there are also a significant number of courses that offer real world applications such as the ability to complete one's taxes, calculate compound interest, balance a budget, and become proficient at mental math.  

We are not interested in quickly implementing a new initiative or program to improve student perceptions on the importance of high school graduation in a haphazard fashion.  While we want to see more students graduate, we wish for rigour to remain, and even increase (which is the reason for our other high school goal on improving personal management skills).  An improved attitude towards high school completion should hopefully have a positive impact on the long-term rates of successful high school completion.   At the same time, we also do not wish to rush into a quick fix approach, risking further “initiative overload.”  Michael Fullan states, “one might conclude that over the past 40 years the problem is not absence of change but rather the presence of too many ad hoc, uncoordinated, ephemeral (this too shall pass), piecemeal policies, programs and leaders that come and go.”

In February of last year, a small group of trustees and I ventured out to our two high schools in Winkler and talked directly with students about their high school experience.  Although the young people we spoke with had a mostly positive view of high school, some interesting ideas emerged.  Thoughts ranged from having a greater choice of nutritional options at school to more university prep classes.  However, one theme that strongly bubbled to the surface was the notion that schools need to be places where everyone feels they belong, and student voice is valued.  We plan to take these ideas further in developing a platform divisionally for enhanced student voice. 

The modern high school education system developed in the last century never did work well for everyone, and still does not meet the needs of all of our youth even today.  This is not for lack of trying from our teachers, principals, and support staff.  Largely through the efforts of these individuals, I believe we have improved high schools substantially over the decades.  However, the high school experience is still not positive for all and too many of our young people don't see graduation as a worthy goal. 

Our modern world requires an educated population.  We need to work on improving student perceptions on the value of a high school education.  This may require us to listen, reflect, and look inwards before we embark on concrete action, but action is required.  Our community has placed a great deal of trust in us as educators in preparing the citizens and leaders of tomorrow.  Too many of our young people are leaving school before completion, and we need to do everything in our ability to make our high schools places where students thrive and wish to be. 

Written by Dan Ward, Superintendent, Garden Valley School Division 

Download article:  The_Value_of_a_High_School_Education.pdf

(Photo credit Pembina Valley Online - GVC/NPC Grad Parade – June 2023 )