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There still aren’t enough students graduating from high school.

Even though this crucial completion figure hit 84 percent in 2016, up from 71 percent in 2001, the nation is off pace when it comes to reaching a graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020.

The speed of progress needs to double, particularly in states that made significant progress in the early days of the GradNation campaign but have since stalled.

AT&T may have committed $450 million since 2008 through its Aspire program to support making education a stronger, data-driven enterprise, but corporate America can play a bigger role, especially in light of numerous recent statements about the need for an educated workforce.

Related: How diplomas based on skill acquisition, not credits earned, could change education

That’s why the GradNation campaign dove more deeply into the data to identify key areas where progress would result in a measurable effect on improving the national graduation rate and closing equity gaps.

“It’s not enough”

Earlier this year, GradNation Acceleration grants from America’s Promise and AT&T were awarded to five programs in communities across the country that have successfully increased high school graduation rates while preparing students to succeed after graduation. Grantees include the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, which supports foster youth in Fulton and DeKalb Counties, and The United Way of Central New Mexico – Mission: Graduate, which has partnered with Rio Grande High School to expand use of the school’s early warning system program to support off-track juniors and seniors and work to re-engage youth who have already left school.

These successes combined with other gains across the country to trigger a domino effect, resulting in a doubling or more than doubling of college enrollment for these same populations. This is critical, because a high school diploma is just the starting line. U.S. employers are looking for candidates with skills to hit the ground running on Day One. Today, that means a high school diploma and quality postsecondary credentials or training.

Related: After countless setbacks, New Orleans teens make final effort to earn their high school diplomas

Some school districts with high rates of poverty — including Tacoma, Washington, Fresno, California, and Cleveland, Ohio — had very high percentages of dropouts more than a decade ago.

They got organized, collected and used data on individual students smartly, integrated academic, social and emotional learning, and were relentless in getting students the supports they needed. Those districts, and dozens of others, have made double digit gains in graduation rates.

Ensuring that high school is a pipeline to higher education and meaningful employment is equally important.

“Credit recovery” programs are an appropriate intervention for students who have fallen behind or have mitigating circumstances. But when nine out of 10 schools nationwide use credit recovery, there are examples of ushering kids through a system without a rigorous education. We need to ensure an equitable and quality education that prepares all students for the next phases of their lives.

Related: How a dropout factory raised its graduation rate from 53 percent to 75 percent in three years

Gains in postsecondary education have been promising, and organizations like Lumina Foundation have kept the nation’s eye on the need for more quality postsecondary credentials among Americans. (Disclosure: Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report). While college attainment rates have increased by almost 10 percentage points over the last decade, the nation still needs to increase the pace of progress to meet the goal of 60 percent by 2025.

Like the moonshot in 1969, Americans can address public challenges if they set a clear goal, marshal a plan of action, collaborate and implement it well for a decade or more in a manner that addresses local and unexpected conditions.

Young people represent untapped potential in a nation that needs their talents — socially, economically and civically. Therefore, it is incumbent on every sector of our society — public and private — to put all students on the path to successful futures. There is a lot to celebrate in the 9th annual GradNation report, but as we continue the work of increasing the high school graduation rate, we must remember that graduation isn’t the goal, it’s the starting line.

This story about high school graduation rates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

Nicole Anderson is assistant vice president of social innovation and president of the AT&T Foundation.  

They have collaborated for the past decade on annual updates to the nation on the high school dropout challenge. 

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