Do early graduation programs really save states money?

Earlier this year, The Hechinger Report took a look at an increasingly popular method of reforming high schools: providing a scholarship to a state public university to seniors who graduate in under four years. Indiana passed such legislation in April, and, according to a policy brief recently released by Jobs for the Future, similar laws are in the works in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri and Nevada.

On the surface, this kind of legislation can seem like a no-brainer. States often still give high schools a percentage of the money they would have received anyway, while lowering the state’s overall cost per student. Such programs promote college enrollment and can potentially eliminate a financial barrier to higher education—not to mention that many people contend senior year is a waste of time, with students having already passed the tests they need to graduate and having fulfilled other requirements.

But Jobs for the Future warns that such legislation must be well thought out and its goals well-defined to be beneficial to students and state budgets. Say, for example, an early graduation law is passed in the hopes of improving college access. “Unless scholarships are targeted to low-income students, higher income students will benefit disproportionately because they are more likely to be on an accelerated academic path,” the report says. “This approach is also unlikely to significantly increase the rate at which underrepresented students enroll in college unless accompanied by academic preparation strategies.”

Many of the people with whom I spoke for my earlier article about Indiana agreed that in order for an early graduation program to be successful, there had to be solid communication between high schools and universities. As it stands right now, many seniors nationwide graduate ill-prepared for college and have to take remedial classes (which don’t typically earn them any college credit). Skeptics of the early graduation trend sweeping the country would argue that senior year need not be done away with completely, but rather reformed to help prepare students better for college.

Not only does sending students off to college ill-prepared seem to do them a disservice—many students who are placed in remedial classes drop out before getting to real coursework—it’s also a financial drain on the system. It’s another reason to exercise caution before passing an early graduation bill, according to Jobs for the Future.

“If early graduation policies do nothing to increase the college readiness of targeted students, then the state risks sending more unprepared students to college—only faster. That would likely lead to increased remediation in college and lowered completion rates. The short-term benefits of speeding students through high school will be offset by the increasing costs of remedial education and the risk of higher non-completion rates in college.”