Imagine a nation where more than 10% of its population has no high school diploma, job skills or clear path toward future opportunities. Imagine how that affects those individuals, their families and their communities. Imagine how that hobbles the nation’s economy and makes individual lives more difficult.

That nation is the United States of America in 2023, where as many as 40 million people lack a high school diploma and have not been able to acquire skills and knowledge a high school education provides.

Goodwill Industries believes no one should fall by the wayside. We saw this gap in our country and set out to address it with an accelerated high school program we call the Excel Center. It’s a place where people 21 and older can go to get what they need to excel and build the life they need and deserve. Goodwill has successfully launched Excel Centers in seven cities. Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake is opening the latest one in Baltimore this fall.

We’ve been in Baltimore for more than a century and witnessed firsthand how the lack of education can affect a community. More than 80,000 adults in Baltimore don’t have a high school diploma, severely limiting their income potential and employment opportunities.

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It’s tragic what happens to those adults without a diploma. Without basic literacy, without essential reading, writing and math skills, adults cannot participate in the modern economy. Those skills are foundational to being able to learn any new job-related functions, such as how to operate a computer-based system or other technology, much less go on to college to pursue a degree.

When you look at what a high school diploma means from a wage perspective, the contrast is stark. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people without a high school diploma had median weekly earnings of $606 in 2019. High school graduates with no college earned $749, and workers with some college or an associate degree had median weekly earnings of $874. Workers with a bachelor’s or higher degree had median weekly earnings ranging from $1,281 to $1,559.

Adult high schools are in high demand across the U.S. Goodwill’s Excel Centers offer adult learners a second chance to get a solid high school education — for free. Excel Center staff members sit down with each new student to determine how many credits they need and what their interests are. Staff members then help students map out a plan.

We remove their barriers to success by offering transportation assistance, free on-site child care, life coaching and case management to help them access wraparound services such as substance abuse recovery and housing and food assistance.

The Excel Center teaches people life skills, how to work, how to get to work, and how to show up on time, while providing job preparation services. We’re able to make it completely free to students thanks to a mix of private, foundation, state and federal funds, supplemented by revenue from Goodwill’s retail stores.

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The Excel Center curriculum is approved by departments of education in the states where we operate, matching all the same coursework regular high schools require for younger people. The difference: Students graduate in two to three years.

Graduates not only earn a high school diploma, but also get credentialed skills training that prepares them to get and perform good jobs. We arrange apprenticeships for them in growing industries, such as construction and health care, or help them go on to college.

Studies led by the University of Notre Dame show that of Excel Centers’ nearly 10,000 graduates, 70% either earned an industry certification or dual college credits.

Landing a good job provides a person with a sense of dignity and helps break cycles of generational poverty. Participants are setting themselves up to be better role models for their children and grandchildren. All of that, in turn, creates stronger communities.

Many of us take high school and the knowledge and skills we gained there for granted. But we can’t afford to overlook those who didn’t succeed or weren’t able to complete high school because life got in the way. A high school diploma truly is a passport to the education and training people need to secure and retain good employment and build an independent life.

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If we want the U.S. to thrive, we must prepare as many people as possible to participate in the workforce and in the civic life of this nation. Goodwill’s Excel Centers are proving it can be done.

Lisa Rusyniak is president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake.

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