Commencement and commitment

Students stand and applaud during City of Medicine Academy’s 2016 graduation.
Students stand and applaud during City of Medicine Academy’s 2016 graduation. Durham Public Schools

With graduations behind us at area colleges and universities, now it is high school students’ time to turn their tassles.

Both ceremonies are big events for participants and their families. But in many ways, the high school graduations that get underway here Thursday night — and conclude in mid-June — are especially resonant.

For one thing, high school graduation is a far more universal experience. Nearly nine out of adults in the United States are at least high school graduates. By contrast, only about one in three adults has at least a bachelor’s degree.

College graduation is for many graduates the plunge into truly independent adult life, with career or graduate school beckoning. But high school graduation day marks the end of youth. Soon, most young men and women concluding their sometimes arduous, sometimes awesome, sometimes in-between high school careers will be moving out of childhood homes. They may be heading off to a college or university campus, or to the military or to a home of their own as they take on jobs — although that move may be delayed as low-wage, entry level jobs keep them bunking with their families for a few years more.

We worry about those students who began their high school career as classmates of those graduating this spring, but who failed to finish. Graduation rates are improving, but about 15 percent of Durham students who enter high school don’t graduate four or even five years later. That’s just a bit below the statewide graduation rate, but lagging neighbors Chapel Hill-Carrboro (92.2 percent in five years) or Orange (89.4 percent).

Those men and women who fail to get at least a high school diploma face bleak economic prospects, and the health and social problems that radiate out from a life in poverty or close to it.

Those who are unwilling or unable to continue their education past high school also, for the most part, will face uncertain prospects. The “wage premium” that boosts the average earnings of college graduates, or even those with some college, over those of high school graduates grows by the year.

What that means is as we celebrate the graduation season that starts tonight with Durham’s four specialty high schools and concludes on June 14, we need to commit to investing in education and removing barriers so that virtually all students finish high school and that all who seek to continue their education are not stymied by financial challenges. We owe it to ourselves — the economy and the society of the future are in the hands of those who march to “Pomp and Circumstance” today.