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Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2006

NCES 2008-053
September 2008

National Event Dropout Rates

The national event dropout rate presented here is based on data from the CPS and is an estimate of the percentage of both private and public 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). Specifically, the rate describes the percentage of youth ages 15 through 24 in the United States who dropped out of grades 10–12 from either public or private schools in the 12 months between one October and the next (e.g., October 2005 to October 2006).9 The measure provides information about the rate at which U.S. high school students are leaving school without a successful outcome. As such, it can be used to study student experiences in the U.S. secondary school system in a given year. It is not well suited for studying how many people in the country lack a high school credential irrespective of whether they attended U.S. high schools, nor does it provide a picture of the dropout problem more generally because it only measures how many students dropped out in a single year, and students may reenter the school system after that time. More detail about the definition and computation of the event dropout rate and other rates in this report can be found in appendix A.

  • National event dropout rates: Approximately 4 of every 100 students who were enrolled in public or private high schools in October 2005 left school before October 2006 without completing a high school program (table 1). No measurable change was detected in the event dropout rate between 2005 and 2006 (3.8 percent in each year); however, since 1972, event dropout rates have trended downward, from 6.1 percent in 1972 to 3.8 percent in 2006 (figure 1 and table 2).10 Declines occurred primarily from 1972 through 1990, when the rate reached 4.0 percent. From 1990 through 1995, event rates increased, but then trended downward again from 1995 through 2006. These fluctuations during the 1990s and early to mid-2000s resulted in no measurable difference between the 1990 and 2006 event dropout rates.
  • Event dropout rates by sex: There was no measurable difference in the 2006 event dropout rates for males and females, a pattern generally found over the last 30 years (tables 1 and 3). Exceptions to this pattern occurred in 4 years – 1974, 1976, 1978, and 2000 – when males had measurably higher event dropout rates than females.
  • Event dropout rates by race/ethnicity:11 Between October 2005 and October 2006, Hispanic students in public and private high schools were more likely to drop out than were White and Black students (table 1). The event dropout rate for Hispanics was 7.0 percent, compared with rates of 2.9 percent for Whites and 3.8 percent for Blacks. The general downward trend in event dropout rates over the three-and-a-half decade period from 1972 through 2006 observed in the overall population was also found among Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics (table 3).12 All three groups had lower dropout rates by 2006 than they had in 1972. However, the decreases happened at different times over this 35-year period for these racial/ethnic groups. The pattern found among Whites mirrored the overall population: a decrease in event rates from 1972 through 1990, an increase from 1990 through 1995, and another decrease from 1995 through 2006. Blacks also experienced a decline from 1972 through 1990, and an increase from 1990 through 1995, but, unlike the overall and White populations, their event dropout rates fluctuated between 1995 and 2006.13 Hispanics, on the other hand, experienced no significant change in their event dropout rate from 1972 through 1990, and no significant change from 1990 through 1995, but did experience a decline from 1995 through 2006.
  • Event dropout rates by family income: In 2006, the event dropout rate of students living in low-income families was about four and one-half times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (9.0 percent vs. 2.0 percent) (table 1).14

    Students from low-, middle-, and high-income families experienced an overall decline in event dropout rates during the 3-decade period of the mid-1970s through 2006.15 All three groups of students experienced declines in event dropout rates from 1975 through 1990. Those from low-income families had rates that fell from almost 16 percent to approximately 10 percent. Students from middle-income families had rates fall from 6 percent to 4 percent and those from high-income families had rates fall from 3 percent to 1 percent (figure 1 and table 4). From 1990 to 1995, students from low-income families experienced an upward trend in rates from 10 to 13 percent, while their peers from middle- and high-income families experienced no significant change. In the last decade (1995–2006), the event rates for low-income groups trended downward falling from 13 percent to 9 percent, a trend not found among students from middle- and high-income families.16

  • Event dropout rates by age: Students who pursued a high school education past the typical high school age were at higher risk than others of becoming an event dropout (table 1). The 2006 event dropout rates for students in the typical age range for fall high school enrollment (ages 15 through 17) were lower than those for older students (ages 19 through 24). Specifically, 2.0 percent of 15- through 16-year-olds and 2.7 percent of 17-year-olds dropped out in the 1-year reference period, compared with 6.8 percent of 19-year-olds and 21.8 percent of 20- through 24-year-olds.17
  • Event dropout rates by region: In 2006, the event dropout rates for public and private high school students in the West (5.8 percent) were higher than for their peers in the Northeast (2.9 percent) and Midwest (1.8 percent), and event dropout rates for students in the South (4.1 percent) were higher than those for students in the Midwest (1.8 percent) (table 1).

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9 Data about 9th grade dropouts are not available in the Current Population Survey (see appendix A for more information). The state event dropout rates for public high school students presented later in this report are based on the Common Core of Data, which includes 9th-graders.
10 Trend analyses were conducted using regressions. See appendix A for more details.
11 Beginning in 2003, CPS respondents were able to indicate more than one race. Approximately 2 percent of 15- through 24-year-olds who were enrolled in high school in 2005 (the base population for the 2006 event dropout rate) reported more than one race (table 1). The 2006 tables report data for five racial/ethnic categories: White, non-Hispanic; Black, non-Hispanic; Asian/Pacific Islander, non-Hispanic; Hispanic; and more than one race. The first three categories consist of individuals who identified as only one race, and who did not identify as Hispanic. A fourth category consists of Hispanics of all races and racial combinations. The "more than one race" category consists of non-Hispanics who identified as being multiracial. Because of small sample sizes, American Indians/Alaska Natives who reported only one race are included in the total but are not shown separately.
12 The trend analyses conducted to examine this three-and-a-half decade period are based annual rate estimates for each year from 1972 through 2006. Separate trend analyses were also conducted for each racial/ethnic group separately for trends across the three shorter time periods indicated in the bullet: 1972–1990, 1990–1995, and 1995–2006. Because of small sample sizes for many of the earlier years, reliable trend analyses could not be conducted for Asians/Pacific Islanders and American Indians/Alaska Natives.
13 Although event dropout rates for Blacks fluctuated during the period from 1995 to 2006, the Black event rate for 2006 was lower than the rate for 1995.
14 "Low income" is defined here as the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes, while "high income" refers to the top 20 percent of all family incomes. In 2006, low-income families included those with $18,001 or less in family income, while high-income families included those with $84,562 or more in family income.
15 Trend analyses indicate a decline in the event dropout rate for students from high-income families from 1975 to 2006, but the rates for these two years were not measurably different.
16 Although there was no pattern in event dropout rates for students from middle-income families across the 1995 to 2006 period, the 2006 rate was lower than the rate in 1995.
17 Eighteen-year-olds represent a transitional population in terms of high school education. Many are still in high school, while a large proportion have entered postsecondary education or the labor market (U.S. Census Bureau 2006). Because of this population's transitional nature, they are not included with those who are age 17 and younger, or age 19 and older, in this comparison by age. Nevertheless, the event rate for 18-year-olds is shown in table 1.


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