Skip Navigation
small NCES header image
Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2008

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

Introduction

Dropping out of high school is related to a number of negative outcomes. For example, the median income of persons ages 18 through 67 who had not completed high school was roughly $23,000 in 2008.1 By comparison, the median income of persons ages 18 through 67 who completed their education with at least a high school credential, including a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, was approximately $42,000. Over a person’s lifetime, this translates into a loss of approximately $630,000 in income for a person who did not complete high school compared with a person with at least a high school credential (Rouse 2007).2 Among adults ages 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 2010). Further, dropouts ages 25 or older reported being in worse health than adults who are not dropouts, regardless of income (Pleis, Lucas, and Ward 2009). Dropouts also make up disproportionately higher percentages of the nation’s prison and death row inmates.3 Comparing those who drop out of high school with those who complete high school, the average high school dropout is associated with costs to the economy of approximately $240,000 over his or her lifetime in terms of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity, and higher reliance on welfare (Levin and Belfield 2007).4

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 2008, provides data about trends in dropout and completion rates over the last three and a half decades (1972–2008),5 and examines the characteristics of high school dropouts and high school completers in 2008. 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 an alternative credential (e.g., a GED). This report presents a national event dropout rate for students attending both public and private schools using the Current Population Survey (CPS), and state event dropout rates for public high school students using the Common Core of Data (CCD).6 Event dropout 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 an alternative credential. The rate is calculated using CPS data. It 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 an alternative credential, irrespective of when the credential was earned.7 The rate is calculated using CPS data. It 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.8
  • 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 is calculated using data from the CCD. It 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 General Education Development 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 aggregates of administrative record 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).9

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.10

All changes or differences noted in this report were tested using Student’s t statistic and 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. Regression analysis was used to test for trends across age groups and over time. Analyses did not include any adjustments for multiple comparisons. Standard error tables are available in appendix C.

Top


1 U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), March 2009. These are not all high school dropouts: 1.0 percent of persons ages 18 through 67 were enrolled in high school in 2008 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey [CPS], October 2008).
2 Rouse estimates a lifetime loss of $550,000 using 2004 March CPS data. The estimate here is adjusted for inflation between March 2004 and March 2008 using March-to-March consumer price index adjustments.
3 Estimates from the most recent data available indicate that approximately 34 percent of federal and state inmates (data from 2004) and 50 percent of persons on death row (data from 2008) lack a high school credential (U.S. Department of Justice 2004, 2009). Although not strictly comparable because of different age ranges considered, estimates for those 25 and older in the general population during the same years indicate that about 15 percent were dropouts (U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau 2004, 2007).
4 Levin and Belfield estimate costs at $209,000 as of 2004. The estimate here is adjusted for inflation between 2004 and 2008 using March 2004 and March 2008 consumer price indexes.
5 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 2008. As a result, in this report, overall trends from 1972 to 2008 are reported, as well as separate trends from 1972 through 1990, 1990 through 1995, and 1995 through 2008, to increase the understanding of patterns over time in these rates.
6 These datasets are described briefly in the main text and in more detail in appendix A.
7 The status completion rate is not 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.
8 Seastrom et al. (2006a) refer to this rate as the “Current Population Survey High School Completion Indicator."
9 Appendix A of this report contains information about the three data collections and describes in detail how the rates reported here were computed.
10 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, as in the High School Longitudinal Study.


Would you like to help us improve our products and website by taking a short survey?

YES, I would like to take the survey

or

No Thanks

The survey consists of a few short questions and takes less than one minute to complete.