Is a High School Diploma the Ultimate Participation Trophy?

And are college degrees far behind?

When my mom was pregnant and suffering from all-day severe morning sickness, my dad convinced her to take a three-hour one-way car trip she didn’t feel like going on because he didn’t want to write a goddamn check. This was a little before the internet took off, back when you couldn’t just go on Amazon and buy whatever you wanted with ONE CLICK. It was also back when writing paper checks was still super popular for some reason, and my parents didn’t have a credit card. (I can’t imagine living without plastic, can you?)

But I digress. My dad can now pay with plastic in stores, which is good because he never got over his fear of spelling something wrong on a check. This always seemed ridiculous to me, because lots of people can’t spell and no one cares. Hell, when I was a kid everyone knew the vice president couldn’t spell potato, and look how far he got in life.

Then, I grew up, earned my first worthless college diploma (we’ll come back to that later), got a job at a TV station, and couldn’t quit my cashier job at a local store because neither job paid anywhere near a living wage. I worked my way through several jobs, but was never able to quit the store, as much as I hated it, because I could never get a single job that paid well enough. So I spent years working in hell, er, retail, as a cashier, and let me tell you something: The majority of people misspell shit on checks, and no one fucking cares.

I should point out I live in Arkansas, a state that currently ranks #42 in Education, #49 in Health, and #47 in Crime and Corrections. People who live in states with better schools may have no fucking clue what I’m talking about, but….


And it’s not just reading and writing. Many people are clueless about basic elementary school topics like geography, history, and US civics. In fact, one recent poll showed that only a little over a third of Americans would pass a basic multiple choice U.S. citizenship test, modeled after the one taken by immigrants in the process of naturalization.

Which brings me back to my original question: Is the high school diploma the world’s biggest participation trophy? Well, yes, it is.

Don’t get me wrong, some people do flunk out of high school, but it’s pretty hard to do in most schools. Only about 27 percent of students who drop out of high school do so because they’re failing too many classes — the rest leave for reasons ranging from boredom to drug use to becoming a caregiver.

Is College Any Better?

Now, if you’re thinking this is an argument for why a college diploma is more important than ever, think again. College degrees are rapidly joining high school diplomas in the lack-of-relevance bins. The state school I went to had such abysmally low standards, I wondered why I’d even bothered to study for the ACT. As far as I could tell, the only real entrance exam was “Can you sign your name on a check to the school?” And even that was waived if you were a good enough athlete.

But maybe colleges have to lower their standards to keep up with high schools. A former professor who I keep in contact with teaches in the journalism department of my alma mater. She told me a few years ago that the school had instituted a new remedial English class that journalism majors now have to take before starting on their freshman-level journalism classes. The reason? Too many students were turning in papers full of fourth-grade spelling and grammar mistakes. Professors who thought they were going to teach journalistic principles like how to write a headline or what to put in an opening paragraph instead found themselves spending hours correcting elementary school mistakes. They spent much of the semester teaching basic English skills and had little time to lecture on journalism topics.

However, people who manage to graduate from college may be able to catch up. A recent PIAAC study — the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies — found high school graduates in America had about the same skills as high school dropouts in many other countries. College graduates did as well or better than people with the same education in other countries, while high school graduates did worse.

Despite my reading and language skills, I always did poorly in math, but even I was amazed at the simple questions some high school graduates can’t answer. One example from the PIAAC study is a simple shopping scenario: If you buy one item and get a second item half off, how much do you pay? If the items are both $10, you pay $10 for one and $5 for the other, so $15 total. Essentially, you’ve received a 25% discount overall. Another way to look at it is that your total cost per item is $7.50.

Now, I’ve spent years doing these kinds of calculations in my head because I sell on eBay, which may have helped me out here. Still, a person who threw tantrums on the floor over math homework as a kid, nearly flunked math in high school, flunked it in college, and was thrilled to get a D the second time I took it because it meant I’d never have to take Finite Math again, probably shouldn’t be better able to calculate simple arithmetic than the average high school graduate, right?

“High school-credentialed adults, they can’t do this task — on average,” says Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the government’s National Center for Education Statistics.

It gets worse. As abysmal as our math and language skills are, American students suck even more at technology. When it comes to things like using email, buying and returning items online, using a drop-down menu, naming a file on a computer or sending a text message, we rank dead last, following Poland. Seriously? American high schoolers have less proficiency in texting than those in any other country surveyed? I’ll admit that surprised me the most.

Is More People Going to College the Solution?

In my opinion, no. College is hella expensive these days — more so than at any time in the past. As inflation has risen, college costs have skyrocketed exponentially higher.

And if your skill set is better than average when you graduate high school, that entire first year of tuition is going straight down the crapper, because your freshman level classes will be spent going over stuff everyone else should have learned in high school. So enjoy paying for that for a full year before you can even hope to learn anything.

Another alternative is to see if you can “comp out” of any classes. I had to take Journalism 1003 because I was a journalism major, but I was able to comp out of freshman English. At least I didn’t have to pay $700 ($1,000 or more now as costs have gone up even since I graduated) to stare out the window while everyone else struggled to learn the difference between there, their, and they’re.

But for some, college is simply not affordable without getting tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and the ROI of a college diploma has been steadily decreasing. For many people, it simply isn’t worth being in debt for decades.

In other words, people who graduate college may have better skills, but we’re frequently paid the same as people with high school diplomas. Just ask the dozens of people I know who graduated with me and ended up working in retail like I did. Oh, there are jobs in advertising and marketing — for people with ten years of experience. Even entry-level jobs now require years of experience, because employers got spoiled during the recession. They found out they could hire experienced but desperate workers for what they used to pay someone who graduated five minutes ago, and they never went back. Even if you do get a job in your field, it may not pay any better than the local McDonald’s.

So What Do We Do?

I’ve heard many suggestions on how we can improve public schools, from smaller class sizes to more individualized instruction. Most of these are good ideas, at least until politicians get in the way. (Common core, anyone?) But here’s another idea that no one is going to like: STOP GIVING DIPLOMAS TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T EARN THEM.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t help people who are struggling. We absolutely should. We should have more resources for students who have learning disabilities, or those who simply struggle with a particular subject, or those who struggle with school because of family problems, poverty, etc. We should do everything we can to help students actually earn a diploma. But we shouldn’t hand them out like participation trophies.

And here’s the problem: Schools and teachers are under enormous pressure for students to perform well and graduate. So a lot of students slip through the cracks…right into a graduation ceremony. This is one reason colleges use standardized tests like the ACT as entrance exams — just because your high school English teacher gave you an A on every paper doesn’t mean you’re ready for Journalism 1003. But the ACT and SAT don’t affect your ability to graduate —but should they? This seemed like a good idea to me, until a friend reminded me these tests aren’t free, and no one should have to pay for one to graduate. Making them free for students, or creating some sort of free standardized test to ensure students are really ready to graduate, would solve that problem.

And make no mistake — underskilled workers are a real problem in the workplace. I remember having a manager who had to look up every word in the dictionary to send a simple email to the corporate office. A task that should have taken two minutes took him half an hour. (The fact that he was a stubborn jerk who didn’t believe me when I told him he wouldn’t find the word “results” under “REZ” in the dictionary didn’t help.)

Now, imagine workers like that in every business in the country. (Remember, this guy was the rule, not the exception.) Think how much productivity is lost to unearned high school degrees being handed out like Halloween candy. Think how many learning opportunities in college are lost to lectures on elementary school topics. Can we really afford to keep handing out high school diplomas like party favors? What if we cared more about the skills high school graduates have than the number of people who successfully graduate high school?

What do you think? How do we solve this problem without giving everyone who sticks it out until the end of 12th grade a diploma?

Scifi & satire with a side of sarcasm. Author of Stupid Humans & Fail to the Chief.

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