What does a high school diploma mean today?

By the time the sun sets on Saturday, York, Chester and Lancaster counties will have around 4,000 new high school graduates. They’ll be joining the workforce, going into the military, or heading to colleges and universities near and far.

All these local graduates, and millions of others across the country, have one thing in common: They will be in possession of a high school diploma.

But in an ever-changing world of technological innovations, an unstable job market and a still-recovering economy, what exactly does that mean, especially for students who aren’t going on to study at the college or university level? What benefits does a high school diploma really provide?

In the world

From the first day freshmen step into the building at South Pointe High School, Principal Al Leonard tries to instill in them the value of achieving that diploma.

“The way we present it is, it really opens so many doors,” he said.

From higher education to the military to job prospects, a diploma changes the number of opportunities available more than students can imagine, Leonard said. That makes students see the concrete value of achieving in high school.

“When you have that particular standard met, it says something about you as a person,” he said.

Students often are intrigued by the increased value of a degree – not just personally, but monetarily, he said.

The Census Bureau reports that high school graduates will earn 29 percent more in their lifetimes than people who don’t get a diploma.

In the military

For someone who wants to go into any branch of the U.S. armed forces, a high school diploma is essential, said retired Maj. Brian Batson, one of two teachers in the Junior ROTC program at Clover High School.

“In the ‘olden days,’ you didn’t even have to have a high school diploma,” he said. “There was a period where many folks got into the military without one.”

Now, few enlisted service members lack a diploma. In the Air Force, for instance, fewer than 1 percent of people who try to get in are admitted without a diploma, he said.

The military has to be more selective and set more rigorous standards, especially in times of a soft economy, Batson said. People often make a career out of the military, which makes it more difficult to get in. Recruiters don’t have to take people without a diploma, because so many people have one.

But a diploma alone will only work for enlisted service members. Officers must have a bachelor’s degree.

In the workforce

“The one thing that we’re finding with employers – and we have a lot of people hiring right now – is that our pool of qualified folks is getting smaller,” said Sharon Blackburn, the project director for the S.C. Works Catawba Workforce System, which helps match employers with job-seekers.

Companies often are willing to hire someone they can train, is hardworking, has a good work ethic – and has a high school diploma.

But, that piece of paper isn’t a golden ticket to any job in the community. High school graduates must have some skills, she said, and those who took classes at career centers or technical schools will have a leg up on others.

In more than three decades of teaching technical-vocational classes, many at the Applied Technology Center in Rock Hill, cosmetology teacher Marsha Williamson has seen students driven to complete their high school studies because of the enthusiasm they have for their technical courses.

“We give them a chance to explore,” she said. “They get to try out careers and get their hands dirty.”

High school coursework alone doesn’t always prepare students to enter the workforce right away, Blackburn said. Many recent graduates are low on “soft skills,” such as interviewing, resume writing, or simply expressing themselves in person or on a written application.

“If you don’t have the skills to sell what you have, it would be harder” to find work, she said.

Her advice to new diploma-holders who want to go to work is to not rule out any possibility. They should be willing to pursue additional education, such as an advanced manufacturing course at York Technical College, which is free if a student meets certain criteria. Apprenticeships also might be a possibility.

Above all, there’s one element that stands out that’s not a given to a recent graduate holding a new diploma – hard work.

In this area, particularly, Blackburn said, high school graduates are in great shape.

“For people who don’t choose to go to college and have a high school diploma and are hardworking,” she said, “they have more opportunities than I’ve seen in 10 years.”