A Partnership to Improve the Lives of Adults Without a High School Diploma
JFFLabs Impact Acceleration and Graduation Alliance are teaming up to increase high school completion and expand career opportunities among the 31 million American adults without a diploma.
By Stephen Yadzinski, managing director at JFF
Brandi left high school to become a parent during her junior year. While she was raising a family, 18 years passed.
“I lived in regret for a long time,” she said. “I always wanted to set an example for my kids and to get into college, but I didn’t know how.”
Through a friend, she learned about Graduation Alliance’s Ohio Adult High School Diploma Program, which serves students 22 and older in partnership with Brandi’s local community college. She signed up.
For 18 months, Brandi participated in online classes in math, science, English, art, and other subjects while she earned job-readiness certificates in financial literacy, digital literacy, and caregiving.
Those certificates and the skills she mastered helped her secure a job in health care as a caregiver before she even graduated. That job, in turn, is giving her experience that will help her as she pursues her next career goal.
“I’m going to become a social worker,” Brandi said. “Now I’m going to college, and I can start a career I really love.”
Life Without a Diploma
Unfortunately, success stories like Brandi’s are not nearly common enough. More than 31 million adults in the United States don’t have a high school diploma. And for them, accessing good jobs that offer living wages and support sustaining career pathways are becoming harder and harder to find.
Over the course of a lifetime, adults who don’t have a high school diploma will earn almost 70 percent less on average than people who do. Not having a high school diploma makes finding a good job harder. In 2017, less than 30 percent of available jobs were accessible to people with no high school credential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017 also found that the unemployment rate for workers without a high school education was 7.7 percent, compared with 5.3 percent for those with a high school education.
The impact of not having a high school diploma is not just felt by individuals. Statistics suggest that a lack of high school completion has a significant negative impact on communities as well. Americans without a diploma pay about half as much in federal and state income taxes every year as those who have graduated. It’s estimated that the loss of economic opportunities, fiscal costs from unrealized tax revenues, and additional public costs accrued from students who don’t complete totals $258,240 per person over a lifetime, with a $755,900 cost to society. The combined income and tax losses of a single cohort of 18-year-old dropouts over their lifetime is astonishing — likely about $192 billion, or 1.6 percent of GDP.
Assuming every year that 600,000 18-year-olds don’t complete high school, $36 billion isn’t put back into state ledgers that provide for publicly funded and subsidized health and well-being services.
The loss of opportunity and potential are also profound, cutting across families and generations. Children of adults who are high school dropouts are less likely to achieve postsecondary goals. Dropouts are more likely to rely on social programs such as welfare. People who do not finish high school are also at a higher risk of serious health problems, as well as at a substantially higher risk of living in poverty, not to mention challenges in accessing adequate transportation, child care, and health care.
Finding the Right Solution to Help Adults Complete High School
There are numerous models designed to help adults complete high school and earn a diploma. These include in-person classroom programs offered by school districts, community colleges, and nonprofits, as well as online courses and offerings that blend classroom and online instruction.
For the millions of adults without a diploma, traditional alternatives, like the GED, TASC, and HiSET high school equivalency exams, are missing the mark. One trend is clear — the number of people who obtained a diploma from an alternative program has dropped in every state around the nation. From 2012 to 2016, the annual number of people who completed one of the three high school equivalency exams fell more than 45 percent, from more than 570,000 in 2012 to roughly 310,000 in 2016. The number passing one of the exams and earning a diploma decreased more than 40 percent from almost 400,000 in 2012 to just over 225,000 in 2016.
As students seek better alternative programs, it can be difficult to assess the quality of emerging approaches to adult high school education. Too often, performance metrics and outcomes data vary from program to program, and are not reported clearly and consistently to stakeholders — especially students.
In addition to knowing whether or not a program actually works, cost is a critical consideration. We must also keep in mind who pays — generally the individual, the government, a corporation, or other institution. For individuals, committing to a potentially expensive program that may not work can put them at an even greater risk financially than when they started. Similarly, for government or other community-based investments, dollars must be maximized, leading some programs to select less effective but more affordable solutions without regard to the ultimate cost per outcome. Quality solutions and programs that are affordable are the key to effectively helping adult high school dropouts earn their diplomas.
For 35 years, JFF has studied and partnered with numerous education providers. We have found that high-impact instructional programs generally feature the following elements:
- Diverse, intensive, and career-aligned curricula;
- Student-determined pacing;
- Focused and accessible advisory and mentorship support;
- Tailored interventions and wraparound services to address non-academic barriers to learning;
- Meeting students where they are, either in a blended, in-person, or online delivery model, that’s flexible and accessible for all learners;
- Flexible payment options that balance completion with participation.
For 12 Years, Graduation Alliance Has Been Reaching the Hardest to Serve
Graduation Alliance entered the field of online high school completion programs in 2007 and has been helping adult students succeed ever since.
The Salt Lake City-based educational services company has developed an innovative model to support individuals who often have the most stacked against them: the long-term unemployed, low-income adults, previously incarcerated individuals, as well as students who tried other similar programs, but did not succeed.
The median age of Graduation Alliance’s adult student population is 29. Graduation Alliance students often cannot attend in-person programs because they lack reliable transportation, have inflexible work and family schedules, experience health problems, or other reasons. Graduation Alliance’s model provides both academic and social support in a flexible, fully online environment allowing them to reach their students wherever they are.
Central to the Graduation Alliance program is their pay-for-performance model. If an individual successfully progresses through critical milestones in the program, Graduation Alliance is compensated. If, on the other hand, students don’t meet milestones, for whatever reason, Graduation Alliance receives no return.
More than 250 school districts, local governments, nonprofits, workforce development boards, and community colleges have partnered with Graduation Alliance to recruit, reenroll, educate, and mentor underserved students. In 2018 alone, more than 1,800 students graduated with their high school diplomas.
Interest in Graduation Alliance’s diploma completion programs is strong — so strong that the organization doesn’t currently have enough financial support to fulfill demand. This has created waitlists, students opting for other less viable options or doing nothing, and a bottleneck in their journey to a better life.
For example, in Ohio and Michigan, when the state-funded programs’ enrollment period opened, demand was so high that enrollment was closed down just four months after launch. Today, more than 4,000 students sit on a waitlist that is still growing. Meanwhile, these programs continue to actively serve students. To date more than 1,300 students have successfully earned their high school diplomas from the Ohio and Michigan programs. Additionally, while the number of people who earn their diploma at alternative programs has been decreasing in every state, admission in Graduation Alliance’s Ohio and Michigan-based programs have sustained and maintained graduation rates of 50 percent and 67 percent respectively — on par with rates for traditional alternative programs.
With the Graduation Alliance pay-for-performance model, each million dollars of investment can be expected to yield the following outcomes:
- 200 new high school graduates
- 100 individuals with employability skills certificates
- 100 individuals with industry-recognized credentials
- 25 individuals with new, gainful employment
- 23 additional individuals with access to employer-sponsored health care
- 80 individuals enrolled in postsecondary education/training programs upon graduation
Online Learning, Wraparound Supports Increase Success
Graduation Alliance primarily delivers its programs online and offers robust supports to help nontraditional learners. There is an art to balancing the flexibility of the online environment with accountability for outcomes, and the Graduation Alliance model does this successfully by setting clear expectations for the pace at which participants should progress through the coursework and holding students accountable to these pacing requirements.
However, the organization recognizes that some participants may require more flexible schedules and may need some help with the curriculum. Graduation Alliance offers proactive academic supports, such as highly qualified teachers and academic coaches to work with students on pace and progress, and makes 24/7 tutoring services and dedicated math assistance available to students on demand.
Graduation Alliance offers career support services that play a vital role in preparing students for career pathways. Dedicated college and career planning services teams assist learners with postsecondary and employment transition planning throughout the program. Students have the opportunity to participate in career pathway programs, industry-recognized credential courses, and skills certificate programs to help them prepare for and pursue their next steps.
A Graduation Alliance graduate named Chasity says she had tried unsuccessfully to complete several high school completion programs before she saw an ad for Graduation Alliance on Instagram. Graduation Alliance’s program was different in part because it offered an academic coach who “made it so much easier for me to get through all of the work and get it all done for the classes I needed,” she said. At one point, Chasity fell behind, “but they pushed me and always helped me catch up.” Now, she says she has the skills and confidence she needs to find career-focused employment, and she plans to go to college to study child development and health care.
A Pay-for-Performance Model That Delivers Results
Borrowing a page from health care, Graduation Alliance is built on a pay-for-performance compensation model that works.
While traditional adult education programs are often paid based on enrollment, through the pay-for-performance model Graduation Alliance reports monthly on milestones met by students in the previous month and draws down funds for those met milestones against a total funding allocation.
That arrangement ensures that there’s a strong alignment between the goals and incentives of the funder and Graduation Alliance, and places the focus on the success of participants.
In Ohio and Michigan, payment is based on students reaching milestones such as:
- Completing courses that count toward a regionally accredited diploma
- Completing employability skills certification coursework
- Earning industry-recognized credentials
- Earning a diploma
These milestones are each assigned a predetermined value and become a rate card that guides the disbursement of allocated funds.
The pay-for-performance approach pioneered by Graduation Alliance has the advantage of yielding transparent outcomes, which are important in an era of increased interest in impact investing where funders prioritize impact alongside returns. The model essentially ensures that investments in Graduation Alliance programs are impact investments by making verifiable achievements a prerequisite for payment. This model enables in many cases for students to not pay tuition.
Those impact investments increase the educational attainment of adults and, in turn, initiate a multiplier effect. Ultimately, the investments can benefit multiple generations of families by providing pathways to economic self-sufficiency through more cost-efficient, government-funded programs that extend the reach of human services programs and communities.
Statistics like those above show how effective programs like Graduation Alliance can be. Millions of American adults do not have high school diplomas, but in a labor market that increasingly values skills and credentials, successfully completing high school is more important than ever. Earning a high school diploma through a program like Graduation Alliance enables people to not only join the workforce, but also to enjoy the quality of life that earning a living wage allows.
JFFLabs Partnership with Graduation Alliance to Scale Impact
JFFLabs Impact Acceleration creates an interface between traditional education and workforce systems, and mission-aligned startups and capital. At JFFLabs, when we talk about scale we don’t mean serving, say, 500 people. To us, scaling means acknowledging the full scope of an issue and not settling on fractional progress. With our work, we’re looking to impact hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people.
Graduation Alliance will develop an effective program that makes earning a high school credential — and thereby gaining access to improved economic prospects — a realistic possibility for some of the most hard-to-reach youth and adults in the country. The organization will carry out that social enterprise by providing youth dropout recovery services and its adult high school diploma programs at the local and state level.
Working together, JFFLabs and Graduation Alliance can connect people with newly acquired high school diplomas to quality jobs and career pathways by bringing our combined expertise in creating opportunities for skill and credential attainment and devising impact-driven strategies that target specific geographic regions in highly tailored ways. Through a collaboration that prioritizes regions and career pathways, we can drive real outcomes in terms of graduation rates, employment and retention rates, wage gains, postsecondary certificate attainment, and degree program enrollment.
Creating Opportunity and Impact Together
Building a partnership with the goal of increasing economic opportunity for 31 million Americans.
Scale Graduation Alliance Offerings Across Economic Opportunity Zones
JFF has taken an in-depth look at how regions effectively develop and implement innovative growth strategies. We have also led hands-on work across the United States, aligning regional workforce development efforts with strategies to attract fast-growing companies and industries. JFF has deep expertise in working in various regions across the United States and has collaborated with many community-based organizations in tackling a variety of economic advancement problems related to education and workforce issues.
JFFLabs and Graduation Alliance see an opportunity to achieve impact together by increasing the high school diploma attainment across three U.S. geographic regions. These regions would each have specific characteristics, including these:
- High rates of workforce demand for people who have earned a high school diploma
- A relatively large percentage (i.e., greater than 10 percent) of adults who do not have high school diplomas
JFF and Graduation Alliance will use labor market and census data, as well as data from other sources, to identify the three regions. In addition to the two characteristics listed above, the regions will also be characterized by a high concentration of low- and middle-skill jobs.
Connecting Graduates to Quality Career Pathways
While earning a high school diploma has repeatedly been shown to be a transformational factor in both social and economic outcomes, a high school diploma is only a milestone in a learner’s journey toward lifelong success. Providing pathways for students to gain on-the-job experience, further their education, and broaden their career opportunities is critical to achieving sustained economic stability.
All Graduation Alliance students will take a career development course when they enter the program. They will also develop learning road maps that include postsecondary education and career plans, as well as ideas for career exposure activities.
Graduation Alliance will also offer career pathway courses in a variety of fields, including health care, business services, information technology, and transportation, distribution, and logistics — all of which are sectors with rewarding job opportunities in regions across the country. The organization will also have a career services team that can pair students with mentors who have direct connections to community college programs and will help prepare students to enter employment.
Career pathways are a hallmark of regional strategies that work. They prepare students to enter the workforce after graduation, or continue their postsecondary education and training. Through our flagship work in this field, most notably through Pathways to Prosperity Network in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, JFF develops, implements, and scales college and career pathways to expand economic opportunity for all young people and to meet regional talent needs.
This forward-looking approach will depend on strong partnerships with providers of proven solutions such as Graduation Alliance, and on cross-sector initiatives that bring together diverse stakeholders, such as mobilized K-12 and postsecondary education leaders, policymakers, and employers.
JFFLabs and Graduation Alliance will explore ways to generate greater social impact by connecting new high school graduates to career pathways and quality jobs. We plan to further develop this concept and will be open to incorporating innovative new paradigms, such as the portfolio-based and project-based demonstrations of competencies that businesses and colleges are beginning to use in lieu of traditional credentials to assess the qualifications of prospective employees and students.
Working together, JFFLabs and Graduation Alliance can successfully engage approximately 1 million of the 31 million adults in this country without a high school diploma who would be ready to engage in a program. By identifying the right locations and pilot partners, we hope to not only scale adult high school diploma attainment, but also connect graduates to quality jobs, careers, and postsecondary education and training opportunities.
Stay tuned for updates on this program, and if you’re interested in driving change with us — let’s work together. Email us today.
JFFLabs provides a critical bridge between traditional training systems with new models and relationships to catalyze the critical work of preparing today’s workforce for the Future of Work, and the economy and careers of tomorrow. We do that by accelerating, incubating, advising, and investing in workforce and education innovations. This is the first in a series featuring partner impact stories and opportunities. www.jff.org/labs