Incentives for Non-College-Bound Students

rewardsHow can rewards be used to encourage learning by non-college-bound students who may be interested in working as soon as possible, some even before graduation? They may be sorely frustrated with their academic high-school experience. Their frustration can help explain dropout rates of 50 percent or higher in many big-city public high schools. Some dropouts may return to school later or pursue General Educational Development (GED) diplomas that require passing tests rather than regularly attending conventional high schools, but this may be a poor substitute for a regular diploma.1

Most Asian and European school systems assume some students will end their school careers after nine years, the end of “lower secondary school,” to use the international term. Only college-bound students are expected to go on for three more years of upper secondary education before college. Some systems have two types of schools corresponding to student abilities and interests: the academic, featuring abstract and advanced work for the college-bound, and the vocational, featuring job knowledge and skills tracks for those working towards technical occupations, some highly paid such as optometry.

In the U.S., the widespread assumption among educators and policymakers is that every student should graduate “college ready” and immediately advance to college. This assumption is noble, as it shows high expectations and the traditional American faith in egalitarianism. But slower students may deter the progress of other students. Many students who pursue four-year college degrees never finish and receive little if any return on their investments of time and money for tuition. In fact, many are worse off since they are saddled with student debt.2 Those who graduate from inferior institutions and programs may not recover through higher wages the full cost of their college education, particularly given a four-year or longer delay in entering the workforce.

In 2012, some 40 percent of recent college graduates were working in jobs that did not require a college degree and 40 percent reported working in jobs that were not closely related to their degrees.3 According to U.S. Department of Labor data, more than one million retail sales staff and 115,000 janitors and cleaners are college graduates.4

There is growing concern over the large debts many students and their families incur while pursuing, often unsuccessfully, college degrees. Total student debt exceeded $1 trillion in 2010, more than the nation’s total credit card debt.5 The median average student debt was $20,000 in 2011, about four times the average debt load of 20 years ago. “A sizeable number of the recession cohort, having graduated between 2009 and 2011, remain dependent on their families for some significant help in meeting daily financial obligations.”6

Although it may be difficult for many parents and educators to admit, four-year college degrees are unnecessary for many occupations, for starting a business, and even for some high-paying jobs. Career and technical education in high school and college and apprenticeships may be better choices when they reflect a student’s abilities, goals, and incentives. Two-year associate degrees and certificate programs are the fastest-growing areas of higher education not because they represent a lowering of expectations, but because they more closely correspond with the interests and genuine needs of many students.7

Students in a nine-month manufacturing training program near Chicago, for example, are quickly snapped up by employers, sometimes months before graduation, for starting salaries of $40,000 and likely jumps to $55,000 and $65,000 in less than two years.8 Students who entered the program say they did so after comparing the cost of training against the cost of college as well as their likely starting salary after graduation.

Florida is adapting its curricula, tests, and graduation requirements to the needs of non-college-bound students without lowering standards or expectations. In 2013 the state adopted a plan giving students three ways to earn a high-school diploma: the “standard” diploma requiring 24 credit hours and passing end-of-course exams in language arts and Algebra I; a “scholar” diploma requiring at least one college-level course, a foreign language, and passing end-of-course tests in Algebra II, biology, and history; and a “merit” diploma requiring all the coursework for a standard diploma plus industry certification in one or more fields. Students seeking merit diplomas may take career education courses or enroll in work-related internships in place of advanced science and math classes.9 The new plan marked a retreat from legislation passed in 2010 that added Algebra II, chemistry, and physics to basic graduation requirements. That law was subsequently seen as unfair to students not planning to go on to college and failing to prepare students with the skills and industry certifications they need to get jobs.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, who supported the new law, told reporters at the time it passed that the law did not make graduation requirements any less rigorous, but made them more appropriate to different types of students. “I’m a great believer in high standards. … I also believe because students learn differently and have different aptitudes … we have to devise curriculum that touches students where they are. … We have to prepare students for real jobs in a real economy.”10

Whether college-bound or not, high-school graduates are likely to be successful if they have strong communication skills. To succeed later in life in the workplace or college, adolescents must learn how to read and comprehend written instructions, solve problems, make decisions, resolve interpersonal conflicts, negotiate with others to achieve common goals, and actively listen. These skills are necessary to become a trustworthy colleague in the workplace, a reliable friend or spouse, and a good citizen. It is incumbent on K-12 schools, not the nation’s colleges, to teach these skills before young adults graduate from high school.

This is an excerpt from the authors’ new book published by the Heartland Institute, called Rewards: How to use rewards to help children learn – and why teachers don’t use them well. 

1. James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, and Nicholas S. Mader, “The GED,” NBER Working Paper No. 16064, June 2010,

2. It also is wrong to ignore the adverse effects on the nation’s colleges and universities from the flood of academically unmotivated students unqualified for college studies. See Richard K. Vedder, Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 2004).

3. Charley Stone, Carl Van Horn, and Cliff Zukin, “Chasing the American Dream: Recent College Graduates and the Great Recession,” John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, Rutgers University, May 2012, p. 7,

4. Richard Vedder, “The Wages of Unemployment,” The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2013.

5. Stone et al., supra note 17, p. 10.

6. Ibid., p. 21.

7. Caroline Porter, “Seeking a Shortcut to a Job,” The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2013, p. A3.

8. Parija Kavilanz, “Nine months in trade school. Job guaranteed,” CNN Money, March 14, 2012, smallbusiness/trade-schools/index.htm.

9. Danny Valentine, “Blavatt Expresses Concerns Over Different Designations for High School Diplomas,” Tampa Bay Times, April 27, 2013.

00. Katie Tammen, “New Law Changes High School Graduation Standards,”, April 22, 2013.

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