Graduation ceremonies give us a parade of joy for students and their families. They mark the culmination of years of effort. They represent a crossroads in a young person’s life. And they likely bring sighs of relief.
While the receipt of a diploma probably doesn’t translate into joy for employers, the general success of Walla Walla’s students should. Now more than ever, economic development is synonymous with workforce — quantity and quality. For so many of U.S. employers, it’s cognition that counts, not calluses. Toss in the need for all of us to engage in continuous learning over the course of our careers, and it’s no coincidence that economic well-being is highly and positively correlated with education.
It may seem obvious, but let’s just posit the premise that an educated workforce starts with success in high school. That may be more elusive than many think. Indicator 2.1.6 tracks the progress of the six districts in the county offering high school diplomas, by tracking cohorts of ninth-graders over the subsequent four years. (District detail available for those online through the “Download Data” tab.)
What does this indicator tell us? For the past eight years, the countywide trend has been one of only minor change. In fact, the county average has registered a decline: from 85.2 percent for the 2011 graduating cohort to 82.2 percent for the 2018 graduating cohort. Despite this decline, the county’s performance is still above the state average. But the direction runs counter to that of all school districts in the state, where the average reveals a gain of approximately 4 percentage points, to the 2018 reading of 80.9 percent.
This column doesn’t have the space to pursue the reasons behind decline in the county results. But it is worth pointing out that 18 percent of Walla Walla County’s public high school students are not graduating, or at least on-time. Instead, let’s consider the consequences for those who do pick up their diploma.
While the new “floor” of educational achievement is a high school diploma or equivalent, most of the labor market projections presume that a majority, although certainly not all students, will need more than a high school degree. What has been the recent experience of college-going, either to 2- or 4-year institutions by the county’s grads? A new data set provided by the Washington Education & Research Data Center gives us a good idea.
The ERDC is able to pull data from various state agencies as well as the National Data Clearinghouse for private and out-of-state universities. Consequently, for the first time, we have a sense of how students in any district are navigating the paths immediately after high school. This indicator is not (yet) a part of the Trends.
Let’s take a look at the largest district in the county, Walla Walla. For the most recently available graduating year, 2016, here are the stats: 24 percent of grads went on to a four-year school, 37 percent to a two-year school, and the remainder, 39 percent, did not pursue either route. Compared to the state as a whole, the share of Walla Walla School District grads going to a four-year was 8 percentage points lower. Compared to the state, the two-year school path was reversed: the district’s share is 9 percentage points higher. Overall, about the same share of students, slightly over 60 percent, pursued further education immediately after high school, for both the district and the Washington average.
How does the current rate of post-high school schooling match with the county’s labor market? Thanks to another Washington state data product, “Employer Demand,” we know the 25 occupations with the highest number of postings. The most recent month from the Department of Employment Security is April.
The report shows a bifurcated county labor market. First, health care occupations dominate the postings with nearly 50 percent openings in that sector, led by physicians and nurses. On the other hand, the majority of the open positions, about 60 percent, were for several occupations requiring only a high school education, including retail sales, maintenance & repair, and heavy truck drivers.
Does this mean, at least for Walla Walla School District graduates, that too many are going to higher ed?
Not really. The Employer Demand report referenced here is simply the most recent snapshot. In other months, the breakdown by educational requirements could well be different. Further, especially when considering the demand for skills, it is important to look at future demand, since it takes a while to acquire the necessary formal skills at an institution. The same office of Employment Security also creates occupational projects out to 2026.
Finally, from an individual basis, it is definitely in a person’s interest to acquire education beyond high school. National studies bear out the wage premium of some college, an associate’s or a bachelor’s or higher over a high school diploma.
For now, let’s celebrate the moment. But let’s use the tools provided by both state and federal labor economists to advise these grads of what the job market may hold in store. And how they get from here to the career they desire.