The Rigor of a High School Diploma Is at Risk

States must take legislative action in order to ensure that the coursework to receive a high school diploma is the same for college admissions eligibility.

High school seniors pose for photos before their June 2011 graduation ceremony in New York. (Getty/Robert Nickelsberg)
High school seniors pose for photos before their June 2011 graduation ceremony in New York. (Getty/Robert Nickelsberg)

A high school diploma should be a crucial step on the path to social and economic mobility, documenting that students are prepared for life after high school. Unfortunately, far too many high school students aren’t fully prepared or equipped for success upon graduation. In fact, in 2013, only 8 percent of high school graduates completed a full college- and career-preparatory curriculum. This staggering statistic reveals a deep problem in secondary education: What is taught in schools does not reflect what students need to be eligible for postsecondary education.

In order to remedy this college and career readiness problem, states should ensure that a high school diploma requires all students to take rigorous courses that are aligned with postsecondary institutions’ eligibility requirements. However, a 2018 report by the Center for American Progress found that most states do not meet this threshold. The report revealed that just four states—Louisiana, Michigan, South Dakota, and Tennessee—fully align their basic high school diploma requirements with those of their respective state four-year public university. What is more, only two of those states—Louisiana and Tennessee—also have a 15-credit college-ready course sequence requirement; that is, they require four years of English, three years of math up to algebra II, three years of lab science, three years of social studies, and two years of the same foreign language. Moreover, only one state—Delaware—requires at least three career and technical education (CTE) courses. Research shows that students who take a higher-level CTE course load are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages.

As a follow-up to CAP’s 2018 report on high school graduation requirements, this column investigates what laws or other policies states introduced in the past two years to address this issue. From these findings and subsequent analysis, three themes emerged. First, states have yet to tackle the big problem identified in this analysis: the failure to align state high school graduation requirements with postsecondary institutions’ eligibility requirements. Second, some states are integrating new subjects—most often CTE—into their graduation requirements. Third, states are establishing new diploma pathways or revising existing pathways. While these three trends are positive signs and point to state lawmakers’ recognition of the need to improve the rigor of their secondary school course offerings, they fall short of using state high school graduation requirements as a tool to ensure that students are both eligible and ready for college and career.

Given the importance of preparing students for the next step after high school, the requirements to receive a diploma are a critical lever for states to ensure that their citizens have access to opportunity and prosperity. Consequently, states must do more than just tweak at the margins; they should rethink how well their high school course sequence sets students up for success.

More rigorous coursework requirements

CAP’s 2018 analysis of 46 states showed that states are most likely not to require the same amount or type of math, science, and foreign language as their public universities do for students to be deemed eligible for admissions. If these courses are not offered in high school, college-bound students would need to be aware of this misalignment and gain access to these courses outside of the classroom. Students in schools that exceed the state requirements would be at an advantage.

Integration of new subjects into diploma requirements

Career and technical education is wildly popular among state legislators. Eighteen states passed laws or other policies related to CTE in high school; science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) came in at a distant second, with one state passing a law related to STEM and high schools. However, all of the changes that states made in these areas—STEM and CTE—fall short of CAP’s recommendation of requiring three courses in laboratory science and three courses in the same CTE field.

Integration of CTE into graduation requirements

States took various approaches to integrating CTE into their high school graduation requirements. These approaches included establishing CTE endorsements or graduation pathways; allowing time spent at an approved apprenticeship—which offered pay and educational credits—to count toward attendance requirements; allowing some CTE courses to count toward academic course requirements; and requiring work-based learning experiences.

A promising development


In its most recent legislative session, Maine passed a bill that empowered the state’s STEM council to establish a computer science education task force. This task force is charged with assessing the best strategy for integrating computer science into the state’s high school diploma requirements and into curriculum at lower grade levels.

Establishing or revising diploma pathways

Whereas some states integrated new graduation requirements, four states—Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, and Nevada—chose to revise diploma pathways, which are intended to design credit requirements in accordance with students’ college and career aspirations. Again, all of these revisions fall short of aligning the coursework needed to get a diploma with that needed to be eligible for state public university admissions.

Examples of revised pathways


Through S.B. 1267, Idaho created a STEM diploma pathway. This new pathway requires the following coursework: eight credits in math, eight credits in science, and five credits in any or all STEM subjects. It does not require students to complete more than the total credits required to graduate but does afford them the opportunity to pursue a more STEM-focused course load in high school.


In Indiana, a revision to the diploma condensed postsecondary and career readiness into a single pathway. Prior to this revision, the state separated traditional academic readiness from postsecondary and career readiness. This new pathway encompasses all three aspects, requiring students to satisfy the course requirements for academics, postsecondary readiness, and employability skills. In order to receive a high school diploma in Indiana, students must complete one of three possible employability experiences and meet at least one of nine postsecondary-ready competencies. This revision to the Indiana diploma blends the various pathways into a singular option for students to pursue while in high school.

In addition, three states—Georgia, Kentucky, and Nevada—included diploma endorsements that recognize CTE participation.


After examining state laws related to high school graduation requirements, it is clear that states are missing a significant opportunity to ensure greater alignment between the high school and postsecondary education systems. While the provision of STEM and career-based opportunities is critical for students to develop 21st century skills, there should still be an emphasis on requiring the same rigorous academics for students to receive a high school diploma and be considered eligible for college. Based on CAP research, this course load would include four years of English; three years of math up to algebra II or its equivalent; three years of lab science; three years of social studies, including U.S. and world history; and two years of the same foreign language.

To be sure, diploma coursework requirements are only a small part of the story when it comes to addressing high school quality. Similarly, course titles are only a start toward achieving alignment, as course content, quality of instruction, and adequacy of resources are also important. Nonetheless, setting rigorous requirements for all students is a critical first step toward this goal.

In addition, states must also ensure that the courses themselves are rigorous and that K-8 instruction sufficiently prepares students to take this course load beginning with their freshman year of high school. Students should arrive with literacy and numeracy skills that are on grade level so that they can understand and master academic content across all subjects. If students are to succeed after high school, the diploma they earn must provide a foundation built on the specific skills and knowledge needed to achieve in college and beyond. To be a truly valuable credential ensuring college and career readiness, a high school diploma must reflect the mastery of rigorous requirements.

Sonali Mirpuri is a former intern for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability at the Center.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sonali Mirpuri

Laura Jimenez

Former Director, Standards and Accountability