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Diplomas drive economy

President Barack Obama doesn't mince words about dropping out of school.

"It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country — and this country needs and values the talents of every American," he said in his first address to a joint session of Congress last year.

It is also quitting on your local economy, according to a new study by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The study says if the Salt Lake metropolitan area's 2008 high school dropout rate were cut by half, graduates would have experienced $18 million in increased earnings in the average year, boosted tax revenues by $2.5 million and boosted home sales with an additional $70 million in mortgage capacity over what they would spend without a diploma. The study assumes 3,500 students in Salt Lake, Tooele and Summit counties dropped out of the class of 2008.

A recent Education Week comparison placed Utah's graduation rate at 12th in the nation, with 77.1 percent of students in the class of 2007 receiving diplomas. That puts Utah ahead of neighboring Idaho and Nevada.

It has long been understood that dropping out of school dooms one to low-wage, low-skill employment. Over a lifetime, the wage gap becomes exponential, when high school dropouts are compared to high school graduates with post-secondary job training, and much greater when compared to those who earn bachelor and graduate degrees.

Taken collectively, large numbers of high school dropouts have a negative impact on local economies.

"Truly, the best economic stimulus package for Salt Lake City and the nation is a diploma," said Alliance president Bob Wise.

The report by the national policy and advocacy organization said 82 percent of high school graduates in Utah pursue some sort of post-secondary education. It is unclear, however, how that number jibes with graduation rates in the state's colleges and universities, which are less than stellar.

College graduates have substantially more buying power and investment potential than high school graduates, but completing a college degree requires that a student first graduate from high school.

The alliance report is an important reminder that the state's economy depends upon a strong educational system. The issue is larger than whether the children in one's own neighborhood graduate from high school. The state's economic well-being — and personal well-being — hinge on as many students as possible achieving academic success.