Maine Schools in Focus: High School Graduates and Gainful Employment—Chicken or Egg?

Editor: Gordon Donaldson

Maine has long aspired to have all youth earn a high school diploma. For much of the 20th century, a prime goal of our public secondary system (which included many academies until mid-century) was to “get all our kids through high school.” It was not until the early 1960s that we began to graduate more than 60 percent of each ninth grade cohort. Today, the graduation rate (measured against the ninth grade cohort four years earlier) is 89 percent. In 2013, Maine ranked among the top fifteen states in graduation rate (MDOE).

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, the push for high school diplomas has been equated with righting the nation’s economic ship. More and better educated graduates will supply skilled and willing workers for a growing and innovating economy. In return, wages will climb, motivating more American youth to seek further education—a virtuous cycle benefiting all. By the 1990s, the push had extended to college degrees.

But what comes first, the well-educated worker or the well-paying, available job? This month’s high school graduates face harsh economic realities, as have members of graduating classes back to 2000. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s May 2016 study, unemployment among Maine 17-to-24-year-olds in 2014 was 12.7 percent, nearly twice what it had been in 2000. Underemployment—holding jobs that do not require a high school diploma—stood at 25.4 percent, again nearly twice the rate in 2000. Combined, that’s 38.1 percent of recent high-school-age Mainers not enjoying the advertised fruits of their high school (and, for some, college) educations.

As we celebrate the Class of 2016, how can we help seniors and their families prepare for a world that does match the one we’ve promised? How can we explain the disconnect between raising academic requirements in the service of “proficiencies” and a world which doesn’t offer gainful employment requiring those proficiencies?

This disconnect is, of course, not new for many rural Maine high-schoolers. Those outside the I-95 corridor have for generations faced the choice of staying in local jobs that likely require less formal education or leaving for jobs that might require more education. The “successful schooling” chicken hasn’t laid the “better jobs” egg for all. Maine now boasts the highest percentage of adults with high school diplomas in its history: 90.1 percent in 2010, compared to 82 percent nationally. But the jobs have not come, particularly in our rural areas.

The Economic Policy Institute’s data suggest that “better jobs” have not materialized even for our rising numbers of college graduates. They, too, face the staying-vs-leaving choice. More troubling, perhaps, is that fewer high school graduates are going to post-secondary institutions and finding them rewarding enough to complete; only 40 percent of those who matriculate for the first time obtain a degree in six years (NCES).

The Economic Policy Institute concludes: “Thus, the Class of 2016 will be the eighth consecutive graduating class to enter the labor market during a period of weakness. The evidence suggests that because of their unlucky timing—in other words, through absolutely no fault of their own—this cohort is likely to fare poorly for at least the next decade.”

How can schools, parents, and graduates themselves make sense of this dilemma of unfulfilled promises? What policy initiatives can help make the disconnect between education and work in Maine more of a “connect”?

  1. Schools, parents, and policy-makers alike can refrain from arguing that the major reason to stay in school and earn a diploma is to “get a good job.” This formula works for some Maine kids, but not directly for most. They instead need to paint a realistic picture of what jobs are available, what skills and attitudes they require, and what types of jobs are not available and will require leaving and/or pursuing further education.
  2. We adults can, as well, emphasize the broader virtues of finishing high school, those that have a lasting impact on our children’s character as well as our social fabric: membership in a class, a club, a team, an orchestra; learning experiences that were memorable for their enjoyment as well as their lessons; the satisfaction of completing the journey with pride and grit; relationships with teachers, coaches, and staff that brought them respect and maturity; friendships that will last and will sustain them through the inevitable transitions following high school.
  3. Policy-makers and business leaders in Maine need to more aggressively develop entrepreneurial zones that attract new and more diverse businesses to Maine, particularly to our rural market centers. The opportunities for these incubators to work closely with schools in their areas, for example through Jobs for Maine Graduates, will offer future high school graduates more job opportunities that are real, nearby, and worth becoming proficient for. With sustained, ambitious state economic development, the “schooling” chicken will lay the “jobs” egg… and those eggs will, in turn, become chickens that will stimulate improvement in our schools.

Sources: The Class of 2016, Kroeger, Cooke, and Gould (Economic Policy Institute, 2016); Maine Department of Education (; National Center for Educational Statistics (


Maine Schools in Focus is intended to share information that stimulates thinking, planning, and action to fulfill the mission of Maine’s preK-12 schools. Submissions must present ideas and data relevant to schooling in Maine and pose questions and suggest avenues for policy and action. They must be limited to 750 words.

Contact: Gordon Donaldson at