USA: 11 facts about high school dropout rates

Written by Néusia Cossa

We used to see social media, such as YouTube or Instagram, shaping dropouts, like how intelligent people get their lives together and become successful businessmen and women. Sometimes, this may be the case. Nevertheless, in reality, things are not so simple; high school dropouts have negatively affected society.

  1. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone.

That is a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day[1]. The status dropout rate represents the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds not enrolled in high school and lacking a high school credential (either a diploma or an alternative certification such as a GED certificate). In 2020, there were 2.0 million status dropouts between 16 and 24, and the overall status dropout rate was 5.3 per cent. This Fast Fact estimates status dropout rates using the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is a household survey that covers the civilian noninstitutionalized population, which excludes persons in the military and persons living in institutions (e.g., prisons or nursing facilities).

The status dropout rate varied by race/ethnicity in 2020. The status dropout rate for Asian 16- to 24-year-olds (2.4 per cent) was lower than the rates for Black (4.2 per cent) and White (4.8 per cent) 16- to 24-year-olds, and all three rates were lower than the rate for those who were Hispanic (7.4 per cent). The status dropout rate for Asian 16- to 24-year-olds was also lower than that for those of Two or more races (6.5 per cent) and American Indian/Alaska Native (11.5 per cent). The rate for those who were Black was lower than the rate for those who were American Indian/Alaska Native.

2. According to David Silver (2008), about 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time.

Neild and Balfanz (2006) analyzed the School District in Philadelphia, showing that academic experiences play a critical role in students’ lack of persistence toward high school graduation. Furthermore, many students fall off the graduation track years before entering 9th grade. Attendance rates and course failure in math and English during 8th grade were found to have strong predictive power for high school completion.  In another study, Balfanz, Herzog & Mac Iver (2007) found that using attendance, behaviour, and course failure in math and English as key predictive indicators, they identified over half of the district’s future dropouts as early as the 6th grade.  Hence, the transition into the high school setting at 9th grade can push students who have been struggling academically and/or disengaged for years off the path to graduation.

In summary, there is much evidence that high school completion and post-high school educational status are not a function of high school educational experiences alone. In some cases, early educational experiences can predict the high school track in which students are assigned, influencing educational outcomes (Gonzalez et al., 2003; Oakes, 1985/2005).  Education is a cumulative process in which earlier academic experiences inform high school academic success. Nevertheless, a more precise understanding of early school factors influencing high school performance is needed to formulate pre-high school interventions to improve high school completion rates.  

3. The U.S., which had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country, now ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries[2]

    The dropout rate has fallen 3% from 1990 to 2010 (12.1% to 7.4%). Whereas, in 2020, the overall status dropout rate was higher for male 16- to 24-year-olds than for female 16- to 24-year-olds (6.2 vs. 4.4 percent). Status dropout rates were higher for males than females among Hispanics (8.9 vs 5.9 per cent) and Blacks (5.6 vs 2.9 per cent). However, the status dropout rates for males and females did not measurably differ for those of two or more races, White or Asian (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022).

    4. The percentage of graduating Latino students has significantly increased. In 2010, 71.4% received their diploma vs. 61.4% in 2006. However, Asian-American and white students are far more likely to graduate than Latino and African-American students.

    5. More U.S. high school students than ever are graduating on time, according to new information released by the research arm of the U.S. Education Department.

    According to the report, the percentage of students who graduated from high school within four years of starting ninth grade in the 2006-2007 school year hit a record high. “What we see is an increase,” Jack Buckley, who directs the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, told The Huffington Post. Of the 4 million students who started school in 2006-2007, 3.1 million — or 78.2 per cent — graduated with a regular or advanced diploma in the 2009-2010 school year. That is an increase of more than two percentage points[3].

    Photo by Redd F on Unsplash

    6. A high school dropout will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over his lifetime. And almost a million dollars less than a college graduate.

    Earnings increase with educational level. Adults aged 25 to 64 who worked at any time during the study period earned an average of $34,700 annually. Average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for workers with professional degrees (M.D., J.D., D.D.S., or D.V.M.). Except for workers with professional degrees who have the highest average earnings, each successively higher education level is associated with an increase in earnings.

    Work experience also influences earnings.  Average earnings for people who worked full-time year-round were higher than average for all workers (including those working part-time or for part of the year). Most workers worked full-time and year-round (74 per cent).  However, the commitment to work full-time, year-round, varies with demographic factors, such as educational attainment, sex, and age.  For instance, high school dropouts (65 per cent) are less likely than people with bachelor’s degrees (77 per cent) to work full-time and year-round. Historically, women’s attachment to the labour force has been more irregular than men’s, primarily due to competing family responsibilities.7 Earnings estimates based on all workers (which includes part-time workers) include some of this variability.  Yet, regardless of work experience, the education advantage remains (Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newburger, 2002:2-3)[4].

    7. In 2010, 38 states had higher graduation rates. Vermont had the highest rate, with 91.4% graduating. Furthermore, Nevada had the lowest, with 57.8% of students graduating.

    Based on data collected from the states for the Class of 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 78 per cent of students across the country earned a diploma within four years of starting high school. The graduation rate was last at that level in 1974, officials said.

    Students in Maryland and Virginia had higher graduation rates than the national average — 82.2 per cent and 81.2 per cent, respectively.

    The District had a lower graduation rate than all but one state, with 59.9 per cent of its students graduating on time. However, it is not unusual for major cities to experience a higher dropout rate and lower graduation rate than states. One study found that the Class of 2005 graduation rate in the nation’s 50 largest cities was 53 per cent, compared with 71 per cent in the suburbs.

    High school graduation rates are one measure of school success, and educators and policymakers have been trying for decades to stem the number of U.S. students who drop out of high school.

    Notable in 2010 was the rise in Hispanic students who graduated on time, with a 10-point jump over the past five years to 71.4 per cent. Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group, making up more than 50 million people, or about 16.5 per cent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. One in four pupils at public elementary schools is Hispanic.

    Graduation rates improved for every race and ethnicity in 2010, but gaps among racial groups persist. Asian students had the highest graduation rate, with 93 per cent finishing high school on time. White students followed with an 83 per cent graduation rate, American Indians and Alaska Natives with 69.1 per cent and African Americans with 66.1 per cent (Lyndsey Layton, 2013)[5].

    8. It is concerning to know that nearly 2,000 high schools in the United States have a graduation rate of less than 60%.

    More than half the African American students in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania attend high schools where most students do not graduate on time, if at all. By contrast, the percentage of White students attending weak-promoting power high schools in these states is below the national average. As a result, African American students in these states are up to 10 times more likely to attend a high school with meagre graduation rates than White students. Even more striking gaps can be found by looking at the high schools with the worst promoting power in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania (Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, 2004:15).

    9. These “dropout factories” account for over 50% of the students who leave school every year.

    According to a new study, after decades of flat-lining graduation rates, states finally have started to turn around or close hundreds of so-called “dropout factory” schools and recover some of the thousands of students who had already given up.

    The Washington, D.C.-based policy firm Civic Enterprises, whose 2006 report, “The Silent Epidemic,” helped galvanize state and federal attention on high school dropouts, reported that most states had gained momentum in improving graduation rates but will need to improve at least five times faster to meet a national goal of 90 per cent of students graduating on time by 2020.

    The study suggests that a combination of state economic concerns and federal accountability pressure has helped drive the national graduation rate from 72 per cent in 2001 to 75 per cent in 2008, the most recent federal graduation estimate. Black, Hispanic, and Native American students made some of the most significant gains, but more than 40 per cent of those students still did not graduate on time as of 2008 (Sarah D. Sparks, 2010)[6].

    Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash

    10. 1 in 6 students attend a dropout factory. 1 in 3 minority students (32%) attend a dropout factory, compared to 8% of white students.

    High schools with the worst promoting power are concentrated in a subset of states. Nearly 80% of the nation’s high schools that produce the highest number of dropouts can be found in just 15 states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas)[7].

    11. In the U.S., high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes.

    With high youth crime rates, there seem to be other effective alternatives to combat youth violence; however, America continues to build more facilities to detain at-risk youth. “That is one of the questions that we raised with this special over and over again. Our economy is stalled. The prison industry is the fastest-growing industry in America. Why? Because it is a business, we incarcerate more people in the nation than any other country in the world. Like everything else, it is all about money,”. “The lives of these children are dependable, and it is sad because it costs a whole lot less money to educate these kids than it does to incarcerate these kids” (Tavis Smiley)[8].

    A part of society portrays dropouts positively, leading to chasing your dream because school is tedious and expensive, as some may say. However, dropouts indeed have significant effects on society and economy that are not very helpful. Therefore, people should proceed with their education for the sake of the country’s national interest.  

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