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Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2006

NCES 2008-053
September 2008

Introduction

Dropping out of high school is related to a number of negative outcomes. For example, the average income of persons ages 18 through 65 who had not completed high school was roughly $21,000 in 2006.1 By comparison, the average income of persons ages 18 through 65 who completed their education with a high school credential, including a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, was over $31,400 (U.S. Census Bureau 2007a). Among adults age 25 and older, a lower percentage of dropouts are in the labor force compared with adults who earned a high school credential. Among adults in the labor force, a higher percentage of dropouts are unemployed compared with adults who earned a high school credential (U.S. Department of Labor 2006). Further, dropouts age 25 or older reported being in worse health than adults who are not dropouts, regardless of income (Pleis and Lethbridge-Çejku 2006). Dropouts also make up disproportionately higher percentages of the nation's prison and death row inmates.2

This report builds upon a series of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports on high school dropout and completion rates that began in 1988. It presents estimates of rates in 2006, provides data about trends3 in dropout and completion rates over the last 3 decades (1972–2006), and examines the characteristics of high school dropouts and high school completers in 2006. Four rates are presented to provide a broad picture of high school dropouts and completers in the United States, with the event dropout rate, the status dropout rate, the status completion rate, and the averaged freshman graduation rate each contributing unique information.

  • The event dropout rate estimates the percentage of high school students who left high school between the beginning of one school year and the beginning of the next without earning a high school diploma or its equivalent (e.g., a GED). This report presents a national event rate for students attending both public and private schools using the Current Population Survey (CPS), and state event rates for public high school students using the Common Core of Data (CCD).4 Event rates can be used to track annual changes in the dropout behavior of students in the U.S. school system.
  • The status dropout rate reports the percentage of individuals in a given age range who are not in school and have not earned a high school diploma or equivalency credential, irrespective of when they dropped out. The rate focuses on an overall age group as opposed to individuals in the U.S. school system, so it can be used to study general population issues.
  • The status completion rate indicates the percentage of individuals in a given age range who are not in high school and who have earned a high school diploma or equivalency credential, irrespective of when the credential was earned.5The rate focuses on an overall age group as opposed to individuals in the U.S. school system, so it can be used to study general population issues.6
  • The averaged freshman graduation rate estimates the proportion of public high school freshmen who graduate with a regular diploma 4 years after starting 9th grade. The rate focuses on public high school students as opposed to all high school students or the general population and is designed to provide an estimate of on-time graduation from high school. Thus, it provides a measure of the extent to which public high schools are graduating students within the expected period of 4 years.

Data presented in this report are drawn from the annual October Current Population Survey (CPS), the annual Common Core of Data (CCD) collections, and the annual GED Testing Service (GEDTS) statistical reports. Data in the CPS files are collected through household interviews and are representative of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population in the United States, including students attending public and private schools. The CCD data are collected from state education agencies about all public schools and school systems in the United States, and contain administrative records data kept by these agencies that are representative of all public school students in this country. The GEDTS data are also built from administrative record data kept by the testing service, and contain information about all GED test takers (data presented in this report are only for individuals in the 50 states and the District of Columbia).7

As with all data collections, those used in this report are useful for calculating some types of estimates, but poorly suited for calculating other types. For example, CPS data are well suited for studying the civilian, noninstitutionalized population in the United States, including students attending public and private schools, but do not provide information about military personnel or individuals residing in group quarters, such as prison inmates or patients in long-term medical facilities. Data from the CCD are appropriate for studying public school students in a given year, but do not provide information on private school students. GEDTS data are helpful for identifying the number of people who take and pass the GED examination in a given year, but do not contain information about schools that GED test takers attended before taking the GED test. In addition, none of the datasets track individual students over time, limiting their usefulness for studying processes and precise time lines associated with completing high school or dropping out.8

All changes or differences noted in this report are statistically significant at the p ≤ .05 level. When significance tests fail to meet the p ≤ .05 criterion and the comparison is of substantive interest, terminology such as "no measurable difference was found" is used in this report. This does not necessarily mean that there is no actual difference between the compared estimates. With a larger sample, the difference may or may not have tested significant at the p ≤ .05 level.

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1 These are not all high school dropouts: 1.1 percent of persons ages 18 through 65 were enrolled in high school in 2006 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey [CPS], October 2006).
2 Estimates from the most recent data available indicate that approximately 30 percent of federal inmates, 40 percent of state prison inmates, and 50 percent of persons on death row are high school dropouts (data from 1997 and 1998; U.S. Department of Justice 2000, 2002). Although not strictly comparable because of different age ranges considered, estimates for those 25 and over in the general population during the same years indicate that about 18 percent were dropouts (U.S. Census Bureau 1998a, 1998b).
3 Trend analyses have shown a pattern of decline in event dropout rates prior to 1990, a brief upward trend from 1991 through 1995, and then another decline through 2006. As a result, in this report, overall trends from 1972 to 2006 are reported, as well as separate trends from 1972 through 1990, 1990 through 1995, and 1995 through 2006, to increase the understanding of patterns over time in these rates.
4 These data sets are described briefly below and in more detail in appendix A.
5 The status completion rate is not simply the inverse of the status dropout rate (i.e., status completion does not equal 100 minus the status dropout rate). The rates are based on different age ranges, and the completion rate excludes high school students from its denominator, whereas high school students are included in the denominator of the status dropout rate.
6 Seastrom et al. (2006a) refer to this rate as the "Current Population Survey High School Completion Indicator."
7 Appendix A of this report contains information about the three data collections and describes in detail how the rates reported here were computed.
8 Several states have student-level administrative record systems that follow student progress over time that can be used for this kind of analysis. NCES is supporting the development of similar systems across additional states (see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/slds/ for details), and periodically conducts national level longitudinal studies of high school students that can be used for such analysis such as the upcoming High School Longitudinal Study.


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