High School Graduation Rates Must Climb Higher

Education inequality is both morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.

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Alma J. Powell is chair of America's Promise Alliance, a national partner network dedicated to improving the lives of young people. Charlene Lake is senior vice president of public affairs and chief sustainability officer of AT&T, lead sponsor of the "Building a Grad Nation" report.

Last week, America's Promise Alliance and several other education research and advocacy organizations shared the good news that the nation's high school graduation rate is—for the first time—on pace to reach 90 percent by 2020. The news, revealed in our "Building a Grad Nation" report, deserves to be celebrated. That we could move the graduation rate from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 78.2 percent in 2010, with the greatest gains—an astonishing 5 percentage points—made in the past four years alone shows genuine progress is being made.

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Nearly 1.1 million fewer students were trapped in "dropout factories" in 2011 than in 2002. Since low-income and minority students disproportionately attend these low-performing high schools, they have benefited the most from these gains. If the Grad Nation report's findings remind us of anything, it's that progress is possible when we come together as a country to focus our resources on communities where the need is greatest. Education is the civil rights issue of our time.

Take the example of Vanessa Ramirez, who, like 17 percent of all youth in Houston, grew up in extreme poverty. Vanessa's life changed when she walked through the door of Genesys Works, a Texas-based program that, through meaningful internships, makes education relevant and brings positive relationships to urban public school students. Following the program's summer training and a paid internship at a Fortune 100 company, Vanessa enrolled at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. She is now headed for a career in forensic psychology or criminal justice.

Programs like Genesys Works, which partners with the business community and others that provide caring adult role models, are critical as they help students like Vanessa visualize an attainable and successful future. Their importance cannot be overstated because when our young people do not reach their full potential, our nation's economic vitality is seriously impacted. And it is the business community that is best situated to help students understand the connection between classroom learning and future achievement.

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There can be no doubt that education and the long-term success of our young people must be a top priority if we are to maintain the health and competitiveness of our business community. Graduation rates are still far too low, particularly for minority and low-income students. And, for a nation that will become "majority minority" by the middle of this century, these gaps are both morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable. Had the United States already reached the 90 percent goal, the additional graduates from just a single class would have earned an estimated $5.3 billion more in income, generated more than 37,000 jobs, and increased the nation's GDP by $6.6 billion.

AT&T and America's Promise Alliance, along with hundreds of other Grad Nation partners, will continue to march together toward the 90 percent graduation goal. The impact we have together is exponentially greater than what we could accomplish alone. We have reached the accelerated pace of change required to get us to our goal. In order to maintain that pace, we must continue innovating, discovering, learning. This is no time to take our foot off the gas. Our nation's children deserve nothing less.