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Essays On High School Dropout Rate

Eye-Opening Stats about High School and College Dropouts

Guest blog post by Chad Aldeman

With Congress busy debating the future of federal education policy, here’s a thought-provoking statistic: American adults in the 1940s had about the same odds of being a high school graduate as today’s Americans have of being a college graduate.

Beyond the pure shock value of this dramatic shift, it begs the question of whether the two rates will grow at the same rates. Will we boost college attainment rates in this century as fast as we increased high school attainment in the last century?

So far, they’re relatively close mirrors of each other. In 1910, 13.5 percent of American adults had a high school diploma. Forty years later, that figure had risen 21 percentage points. In 1975, 13.9 percent of American adults had a bachelor’s degree. 38 years later, that figure had risen 18 percentage points.

The graph below shows how these two trend lines look remarkably similar. The key question is what will happen next.


We already know what happened to high school attainment rates. We shifted from relatively slow progress through the first half of the 1900s into a much faster rate of growth between 1950 and 1980. In those 30 years, the percentage of American adults with a high school diploma or GED (General Education Diploma) doubled from 34.3 percent to 68.6 percent. Today we’re inching toward 90 percent of our adult population with a high school diploma or GED.

There are still schools with low graduation rates, but even those are falling fast. Nationwide the number of dropout factories—high schools with a graduation rate under 60 percent—declined from more than 2,007 in 2002 to 1,146 in 2013. Similarly, the number of students enrolled in those dropout factories plummeted from 2.6 million to 1.1 million, even as the total student population nationwide increased.

As I show in a new report for Bellwether Education Partners, rapid progress at the high school level, combined with very slow progress in postsecondary education, has led to dramatic changes in our society. And in 2009, the U.S. passed an almost-inevitable milestone: There are now more American adults who have dropped out of college than have dropped out of high school.


In pure, raw numbers, college dropouts are now a bigger problem than high school dropouts. Today there are 29.1 million college dropouts versus 24.5 million Americans with less than a high school diploma. It’s safe to predict that this trend will only accelerate as older generations with lower educational attainment rates are gradually replaced by new generations with higher attainment rates.

A number of factors contributed to these changes. In the labor market, employers send a powerful signal that they value candidates with higher levels of education. Individuals are more likely to be employed, and to earn higher wages, for higher levels of education. Compulsory attendance laws played a role too, accelerating high school attendance and completion rates. The introduction of the GED began as a way to offer returning World War II veterans a path to a high school diploma without having to go back to high school. Over time, it took on an even bigger role for other groups of high school dropouts. There are now 6 million Americans with a high school equivalency degree like the GED. That alone accounts for about 3 percent of the increase.

More recently, No Child Left Behind forced schools and districts to start paying attention to high school graduation rates. Those accountability mechanisms helped kickstart another push to get all students through high school, a reform that has particularly paid off for low-income and minority students and for students with disabilities.

Will college attainment rates keep making slow but steady progress, as they have over the past 40 years, or will we start to see faster growth like we did for high school attainment rates? In my recent paper, I argue that enhancing high school policies could be one lever for policymakers. If states truly held high schools accountable for what happens to their students after graduation, they would build robust portraits of high school quality that measured things like advanced high school course-taking rates, student engagement, and student outcomes in college and careers. All of these steps would ease the transition from high school into college.

But we shouldn’t let higher education institutions off the hook for oversubscribing students to remedial courses or for failing to graduate large portions of their students. It’s an open question whether we’ll make the equivalent policy adjustments in higher education as we did in K-12: will someone create a “GED for college” or will we start holding colleges accountable for their graduation rates to boost education attainment? The answers to these questions matter both to the individuals graduating today and to our broader society going forward.

Chad Aldeman is an Associate Partner at Bellwether Education Partners and the author of “Mind the Gap,” a new report making the case for re-imagining the way states judge high school quality.




`On Monday I dug into the current state of high school dropouts and where American students today stand in historic statistics. In my research, I discovered that while dropout percentages are much lower today than they were a few decades ago, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Today I want to look at the underlying causes of the dropout mentality and how every student who does not earn a high school diploma hurts society as a whole. My hope is that in discovering shared traits among dropouts, we can achieve higher high school graduation rates as a nation.

Why are students dropping out?

One unchanging factor when it comes to the dropout rate is socioeconomic background. Since the National Center for Education Statistics first started tracking different groups of high school students in the late 1960s, the socioeconomic status of each pupil has impacted the graduation rate. Students from low-income families are 2.4 times more likely to drop out than middle-income kids, and over 10 times more likely than high-income peers to drop out.

Household income is the not the only disadvantage many dropouts have, though. Students with learning or physical disabilities drop out at a rate of 36 percent. Some behaviors that are often characteristic in dropouts include being retained from advancing a grade level with peers, relocating during the high school years and the general feeling of being left out or alienated by peers or adults at the school. Overall, a student who does not fit the traditional classroom mold, or who falls behind for some reason, is more likely to lose motivation when it comes to high school and decide to give up altogether.

How valuable is a high school diploma?

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that dropouts bring in just $20,241 annually, which is $10,000 less than high school graduates and over $36,000 less than a person holding a bachelor's degree. The poverty rate for dropouts is over twice as high as college grads, and the unemployment rate for dropouts is generally 4 percentage points higher than the national average. In the end, the lifetime earnings of high school dropouts are $260,000 LESS than peers who earn a diploma.

Why should I care?

The financial ramifications of dropping out of high school hurt more than the individual. It's estimated that half of all Americans on public assistance are dropouts. If all of the dropouts from the class of 2011 had earned diplomas, the nation would benefit from an estimated $154 billion in income over their working lifetimes. Potentially feeding that number is the fact that young women who give up on high school are nine times more likely to be, or become, young single mothers. A study out of Northeastern University found that high school dropouts cost taxpayers $292,000 over the course of their lives.

It's not just about the money though. Over 80 percent of the incarcerated population is high school dropouts - making this an issue that truly impacts every member of the community. Numbers are higher for dropouts of color; 22 percent of people jailed in the U.S. are black males who are high school dropouts. As a society, we are not just paying into public assistance programs for dropouts, but we are paying to protect ourselves against them through incarceration.

I wonder what these numbers would look like if we took the nearly $300K that taxpayers put in over the course of a dropout's lifetime and deposited it into their K-12 learning upfront. If we invested that money, or even half of it, into efforts to enhance the learning experience and programs to prevent dropping out, what would that do to dropout, poverty and incarceration rates? Right now the process seems to be reactionary. What would it look like if more preventative actions were put in place?

What are some underlying causes of the high school dropout rate not mentioned here?

If you would like to invite Dr. Lynch to speak or serve as a panelist at an upcoming event, please email him at [email protected]

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