President Obama wants all Americans to have at least a year of college or job training under their belt by 2020. But to turn that goal into a reality, students need to finish high school, experts say.
Nearly 1 million high school students drop out each year, which works out to roughly 7,000 new dropouts every school day, according to Tony Miller, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
"The dropout issue costs our country about a trillion dollars. It's the equivalent of a permanent recession," Miller said during a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress on May 31.
[Find out why the U.S. needs a 100 percent high school graduation rate.]
But tackling the dropout crisis will require more than government action, experts say. It will require players from the public and private sectors to collectively work toward a mutually beneficial goal: a more educated workforce.
"The private sector is chief among stakeholders with interest in a vibrant and productive education enterprise. Corporations depend on highly skilled, well-educated young people for their future workforce," said Winnie Stachelberg, the executive vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.
Stachelberg moderated the discussion at the center, which brought representatives from various sectors together to examine the role of public-private partnerships in education.
For companies such as AT&T, investing in education is a way to secure their future workforce, said Beth Shiroishi, the vice president of sustainability and philanthropy for the communications company.
"We have taken for granted that we will be able to hire those that we want to hire," Shiroishi said.
But what was once a guarantee turns into a question mark if the company looks toward hiring prospects 20 years down the road, she said.
Companies are already making an impact on education in communities across the country. AT&T's Aspire initiative has invested more than $100 million to improve graduation rates and career readiness through job shadowing, and Home Depot partnered with students at Beechcroft High School in Columbus, Ohio, to outfit the school's community garden with ramps, making it handicap accessible.
While students were helping build the ramps, they were also learning about the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have access to public spaces, connecting their in-class learning to the world outside of the classroom—a key piece in solving the dropout puzzle.
[Learn how to identify a high school dropout factory.]
"It's not just about the garden, but it's about the kind of learning that's going on," said Bill Raabe, the director of the Center for Great Public Schools at the National Education Association. "The students have new ideas … and they've done fantastic learning. And this is in an area of Columbus where the children don't have the kind of access to opportunities that they normally would have."
While localized successes are a triumph, they will not be enough to transform the U.S. public education system, the panelists said.
Making real strides in dropout prevention and graduation rates will require all stakeholders—teachers, unions, governments, and businesses—to work together to drive systematic change, they said.
"As a society we don't yet fully value education—not at the level that we need to," said Miller, the deputy secretary. "We've got to be much better at saying, 'Education really matters.'"
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