The Economic Value of Alternative Education

Alternative education has a major role to play in increasing the nation’s high school graduation rate.

Alt ed is a term for programs that focus on students who find little success in the structure of traditional high schools.

Alternative schools focus on academics and minimize the time wasters like class changes and lunch. They often have shorter days, multiple shifts, flexible attendance, credit for jobs, and are small in scale.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that about 650,000 students are enrolled in public alternative schools. That’s 4.3 percent of the 15 million high school students in public education.

Alternative schools enroll students who appear unlikely to graduate due to any number of reasons and give them a chance to meaningfully and legitimately earn a diploma.

When you roll up the number of young people affected by homelessness, addiction, abuse, the foster-care system, have a parent in prison, have children of their own or parents to care for, or any of a host of risk factors, the sum easily exceeds over two million teenagers.

One of the ironies of A Nation at Risk, the seminal report that started decades of education reform, is that the very students who threatened America’s prominence as the global industrial leader and preeminent problem solver acquired their moniker from its title: at-risk students.

At-risk students are the clients of alternative education. Not all at-risk students are in alternative schools, but all alternative school students are at risk.

As long as there have been schools, there have been students who brought the average down, and undedicated slackers who  added turmoil to the school. Many have moved on to lower entry point jobs where using the skills they learned in school was not involved..

Decades ago, such former students had a place in the economy and a place in society.

But times change. According to A Nation at Risk, students who “do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life.”

How true that report has proven to be, but how poorly have our educational systems responded to lift the trajectory of at-risk students’ lives. When the educational system realizes the economic value of alternative education, everyone’s lives will improve.

The benefits of a high school diploma are clearly established: it’s a prerequisite for higher education, a requirement for entering the military, and a ticket to better earnings.

The Economic Value of Alternative Education

The economic advantage of finishing high school is real – $10,300 more a year for graduates compared to dropouts.

Having close to a half million more dollars flow through the pockets of a high school graduate compared to a dropout make a big difference over a working lifetime.

The negative consequences to society of not receiving a high school diploma are staggering.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, the nation could save as much as $18.5 billion associated with crime if the high school male graduation rate increased by only 5 percentage points.

That would translate into a decrease in annual incidences of assault by nearly 60,000. It would also prevent nearly 1,300 murders, more than 3,800 occurrences of rape, and more than 1,500 robberies. Cutting the number of dropouts in half would save $7.3 billion annually for Medicaid.

These are real numbers; these are real lives.

Yes, there have always been poor students and poorly behaved students, but today’s at-risk students cut a different profile and reflect economic and societal realities that don’t justify their problems but certainly make a chip shot of understanding and empathy.

Some young people overcome a deck stacked against them, but most do not and perpetuate a cycle of generational dysfunction, low expectations, and societal dependence.

Today, the nation’s high school graduation rate stands at 84.6 percent.

It is up in recent years due to an increase of diploma types created to expand routes available to graduation and due to many states dropping their high stakes exit exam.

But that number masks the fact that the percentage range of four-year graduation rates for students of color hovers between the high 60s and low 70s.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is also taking issue with recent graduation numbers.

In order to have greater consistency and uniformity among the states’ graduation rates, ED is tightening up on the variety of diplomas that have emerged.

For instance, Indiana’s 2018 graduation percentage dropped from 88 to 81 when the ED determined that Indiana’s least rigorous diploma did not count toward its graduation rate.

It seems likely that the nation’s graduation rate will drop in coming years as the federal government walks a fine line in determining which diplomas count for high school graduation and which lack sufficient rigor.

But the route to a standard high school diploma via alternative education is one that could add legitimately to the national graduation rate. That is why the economic value of alternative education is so important.

Embracing alternative education as a path to graduation will lift the trajectory of at-risk students’ lives, increase their lifetime earning power, enhance the available workforce, and add billions of dollars to the economy. So it’s easy to see the economic value of alternative education.

But this spring, over a half million teenagers who should have been there didn’t participate in graduation ceremonies across the country – and that is an unexcused absence.

Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin, Ph.D. are CEO and Director of Research & Analytics respectively of ChanceLight Behavioral Health, Therapy, and Education. Their most recent book is How Autism is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).